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NIH director pushes for research on non-opioid pain treatments

NIH director pushes for research on non-opioid pain treatments
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The director of the nation's top medical research agency said developing alternative ways to address pain is critical as the nation battles an opioid epidemic.

“NIH, of course, is in the business of generating the evidence, and there’s a lot we still need to know,” Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said Thursday.

His comments came at a Senate Health Committee hearing on the federal response to the opioid crisis, which has hit both urban and rural communities.

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The panel’s ranking member, Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayOvernight Health Care: House passes funding bill | Congress gets deal on opioids package | 80K people died in US from flu last winter Wilkie vows no 'inappropriate influence' at VA Dems push back on using federal funds to arm teachers MORE (D-Wash.), asked the witnesses to discuss how their agencies were using evidence-based practices for prevention and treatment — and the importance of the federal government promoting these policies.

“We need to know more about nondrug approaches to treating pain, and that’s another way to keep people from getting addicted to opioids,” Collins said.

He noted a new interagency partnership focusing on managing pain for veterans and service members without prescription drugs.

Announced Sept. 20, the initiative totals $81 million over six years to develop, implement and test nondrug alternatives. It’s a collaboration between three departments: Health and Human Services, Defense, and Veterans Affairs. The NIH serves as the lead agency for HHS.

Additionally, researchers don’t know how long medication-assisted treatment — which couples medication with therapy to help those with an opioid addiction — should be used, Collins noted.

“That is a lot longer than many of the programs currently offer,” he said.

Addressing the crisis was a rare spot of bipartisanship last year when Congress passed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act and the 21st Century Cures bill, which included $1 billion in state grants to fight opioid abuse.

Since 1999, the rates of death from an opioid overdose death have more than quadrupled, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.