Like many physicians, the opioid overdose epidemic has become personal to me. As a cardiothoracic surgeon I have prescribed opioids for 25 years to help my patients manage their post surgical pain. These medications are invaluable, but they have a much darker side than I ever imagined and we are seeing it very clearly now.
Drug overdose is now the number one cause of accidental deaths--more people die from drug overdoses than die in automobile accidents, falls, or guns. We have two million addicted souls who generate 1000 ER admissions and 80 deaths every day.
Addiction can no longer go unnoticed--there are few of us who have not been touched by it in someway. In fact, in a recent survey by Morning Consult, about two-thirds of voters said the problems of prescription drug and heroin abuses are very serious.
We also survey our audience to assess their interests, and mental health has become their dominant request, in part because of its dangerous cousin, addiction. Each weekday, viewers around the country allow us the very special privilege of entering their homes to share our knowledge on how to improve health and happiness. Over the last year, we have devoted a substantial amount of time to covering the crisis. More than any season before, we have seen people responding through comments, social media, email, even public gatherings. And amidst that feedback, there have been letters of gratitude, hope and support. Many of the stories had happy endings; others were tragic. If we teach people a pathway to recovery and we support families and individuals who are wrestling with the deadly dance of addiction, they CAN and WILL get better. I have seen first hand that recovery is real.
Both on and off our stage, my team and I have done our homework on this topic. We've talked with the biggest leaders in the country as well countless people in recovery. We've also met with folks out in the community who are dealing with the challenges of getting treatment for addiction. I've learned that getting help conceptually should be straight forward, but in reality there are many seemingly insurmountable barriers for people with the brain disease of addiction.
This is why I am spending today in the U.S. Capitol at the launch of the Coalition to Stop Opioid Overdose. When I last came to Capital Hill this past October. We participated in the UNITE to Face Addiction rally - a huge, historic concert on the Mall. I heard from many families that their loved ones could not get help or enter rehab. The carried pictures of those they had lost, happy faces of lives cut short adorned T shirts. People told me they were not being offered medications like buprenorphine, naltrexone that work to reduce addiction cravings while others long for access to naloxone - an emergency countermeasure that pulls addicts back from the brink of overdose deaths. A month later, we learned from the NIH that 75% of people with drug-use disorders never receive any treatment.
Part of the problem is that until now, our nation has had no unified national approach to dealing with the crisis. But we are on the brink of major change. So here is where we are:
• Congress, the Administration, CDC and FDA have taken important initial steps to combat this epidemic.
• Last week, the House passed an omnibus of 18 bills related to opioids, and the Senate approved the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery bill in March.
• Now the real work will take place - the bills will need to be reconciled in a conference committee and the Senate and House now must merge their CARA bills into one.
• We are here today to ask Congress to appropriate enough money to fully fund the legislation. WE ARE SO CLOSE!!
We have even seen something many thought would never be possible again--strong bipartisan support for a bill in Congress. I'm talking about the 94 to 1 passage of the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act in the Senate and the more recent 400 to 5 passage of the 18 bill omnibus version in the House. It's proof that when faced with a tough problem, our humanity and the resolve that brought us to serve can be strong, decisive, expedient and we can emerge with a plan.
But we are not done yet. We must reconcile the bills and make sure that we have adequate funding to support prevention and treatment. We must ensure that doctors who treat addiction can treat as many patients as they come to them and we must help make it easy for patients to find treatment. We must also make sure we fund school and community organizations to create an environment where recovery can happen.
My colleagues and I have spent our careers fixing, coaxing, nurturing, nudging, and in some cases, forcing hearts to keep beating when they couldn't keep beating on their own. We need to do the same with the hearts of all those suffering from opioid addiction - coax, nudge, cheer, nurture, study, fund, and show we care until they can beat on their own, free from the deadly grip of opioid cravings.
There are a lot of theories and analysis on how the crisis got to this point -- that is an academic conversation for another venue and would be a distraction here from what we are called to do. Today is about action. CARA's passage into law represents Congress and our nation at its best. Bipartisan. Analytical. Idealistic. Compassionate. Yes, we can still be all those things here in America.