Drug overdose deaths have hit ‘plateau’ health chief says


The number of people dying from drug overdoses in the United States has begun to level off after reaching a record high last year, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Tuesday.

The record numbers were largely driven by the opioid epidemic, but efforts to help support treatment at the local and community level are making a difference, Azar said.

“We are so far from the end of the epidemic, but we are perhaps, at the end of the beginning,” Azar said at a conference sponsored by the Milken Institute, according to prepared remarks.

More than 72,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2017, and 42,000 of them were from opioids, according to preliminary data released this summer by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That number is incomplete, and could increase.

Azar cautioned that it’s too soon to declare victory, and that drug overdoses are not declining. Drug overdoses, rather, are increasing at a slower rate than they have previously.

“The seemingly relentless trend of rising overdose deaths seems to be finally bending in the right direction,” Azar said. “Plateauing at such a high level is hardly an opportunity to declare victory. But the concerted efforts of communities across America are beginning to turn the tide.”

While the Department of Health and Human Services has declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency, skeptics have said few solutions have come out of the White House or Congress.

States are using grant money made available through the 21st Century Cures Act, which was signed into law in 2016, to fight the epidemic. Still, President Trump has not allocated additional resources in the battle. 

Trump will sign a sweeping, bipartisan comprehensive opioid bill on Wednesday, which Azar said will provide a wide variety of tools to help combat the epidemic. The bill creates new programs, and expands and reauthorizes existing programs across almost every federal agency, which are aimed at addressing all aspects of the opioid epidemic, like prevention, treatment and recovery.

However, advocates say the legislation doesn’t provide enough guaranteed money for a long-term investment into opioid addiction treatment.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) released a government watchdog report on Tuesday that they said demonstrates the public health emergency “has resulted in almost no meaningful action by the Trump Administration.”

The administration has made use of three of the emergency authorities available — one to reduce paperwork, one to hasten pilot programs that states were already developing, and one regarding research, according to the Government Accountability Office report.

GAO also found 14 other authorities went entirely unused for a variety of reasons.

“Communities are desperately in need of more help to address the opioid epidemic. President Trump, as this report shows, has broken his promises to do his part,” Warren said in a statement. 

Tags Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Patty Murray

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