Is Congress finally awakening to our nation's addiction crisis?

Is Congress finally awakening to our nation's addiction crisis?
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While COVID-19 is a novel virus, there’s no novelty to addiction. In fact, we are in the midst of a long-existing addiction crisis poised to surge to new levels in the context of our current reality. While it’s hardly surprising that our attention has been elsewhere this year, Congress must now address the rising overdose deaths that are rapidly mounting. 

It's estimated that more than 150,000 people died as a result of drug overdoses and alcohol misuse in 2019 alone — a figure that matches current COVID-19 mortalities in the United States. We have already seen an estimated 13 percent increase in drug overdose deaths in 2020, alongside a spike in online alcohol purchases. This is no surprise given the stress, anxiety and isolation the pandemic has caused. We also see a harbinger of this grim news in our day-to-day work at Partnership to End Addiction (an organization we're affiliated with): more and more families are seeking support from trained specialists through our helpline. 

The pains wrought by both the coronavirus and addiction are devastating millions of families. However, our responses to the two public health crises couldn’t be more different. Scientists and researchers rush to develop new vaccines and therapies for COVID-19, and officials seek to assure us each day that the virus is preventable. A comparable sense of urgency and fervor to prevent and treat addiction is nonexistent. Addiction is a preventable, treatable disease. But the public health cavalry never arrived. Instead, addiction remains stigmatized and misunderstood.  

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Addiction’s impact on our nation extends beyond a profound loss of life. The cumulative toll is measured in much more – broken hearts, shattered families, compromised health, lost productivity and potential, the sting of inequity, despair and debilitating economic loss.  

Stunningly, the consequences of addiction cost the U.S. nearly a trillion dollars each year. Yet, little is invested in prevention and treatment that can reverse this crisis. Our report, Shoveling Up II: The Impact of Substance Abuse on Federal, State and Local Budgets, found that only 2 cents of every dollar in 2005 was being invested in prevention and treatment. Tragically, not much has changed in the past 15 years. 

The 2020 National Drug Control Budget includes $16.1 billion for treatment and $2.1 billion for prevention — still only about 2 percent of the several hundred billion dollars that addiction costs our nation each year. A drop in the bucket. Experience has conditioned us to be pessimistic about our nation’s leaders waking up to the consequences of this nightmare and taking meaningful action to end it. 

As we focus on the pressing crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and struggle for racial justice, it may seem understandable that addiction would remain on the back burner. Closer examination, however, reveals this is a false choice and poignant reminder of another haunting truth: addiction has become a cautionary tale in the national narrative of what happens when we ignore public health crises and social inequities.

We know how to prevent and treat addiction. If we find the collective will, we can bring an end to the epic loss of life and so much more that is ripping at the fabric of our nation. As our country’s leaders take steps to demonstrate commitment to investing in public health to fight COVID-19, will they step forward to invest in solutions that can help end our addiction crisis too?    

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They have a moment now to show us. While the first stimulus package provided nearly $2.5 trillion for emergency relief, only $425 million — barely more than a hundredth of 1 percent — was designated for mental health and addiction treatment. The House recently passed a fourth stimulus bill, the HEROES Act, which provides $3 billion for mental health and substance use programs. The Senate bill, the HEALS Act, proposes a $4.5 billion investment in this area.

This funding for mental health and substance use programs would be a step in the right direction. It certainly does not solve the problem, nor make up for decades of neglect. But its inclusion in the coronavirus bill offers hope that policymakers are at least awakening to the public health crisis of addiction and its worsening consequences in the age of COVID-19.  

Joseph A. Califano, Jr. is chair emeritus of Partnership to End Addiction and former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare.

Creighton Drury is CEO of Partnership to End Addiction, a national nonprofit working to transform how our nation addresses addiction.