Every day, 129 of our fellow Americans die from drug-related overdoses. It is now the leading cause of accidental death in the United States -- more than car crashes. That's why last week in Washington, I joined 128 other families who have lost loved ones to addiction -- all of us there to represent the 47,000 lives lost each year. Our goal was to push federal lawmakers to finally do something about it.
Fortunately, Congress seems to have realized the magnitude of this crisis. Both chambers have passed legislation to help, but now they must come together on a final bill to send to the president for his signature. Every day Washington waits, another 129 families' lives are destroyed, shattered forever
As the former CEO of several businesses, I understand that in order to make change, we need a clear plan and sufficient resources. While there is no easy fix to stop addiction, there are some simple steps policymakers can take right now to dramatically slow this preventable loss of life. So here's what we need Congress to do:
1) Reconcile the House and Senate bills and send to the President immediately.
This is the most basic. House and Senate lawmakers are currently negotiating a final bill, which should include the best parts of each. There is no time to waste. Our elected representatives must finish their work and send it to the President's desk by the beginning of June.
2) Tie incentive grants to required use of state-run prescription drug monitoring programs.
The final bill must include a clause that limits federal grants to states that require doctors to use a state-run prescription database to check a patient's prescription history before prescribing a dangerous drug. That check will help doctors detect early signs of addiction, such as requesting painkillers from multiple doctors. And it can prevent doctors from accidentally prescribing a drug that could be lethal in combination with another drug the patient is taking (for example, combining an opioid like Vicodin with a sedative like Xanax can quadruple the risk of overdose). This is common sense, and will save thousands of lives. It was included in the Senate bill, but not the House version.
3) Provide the funding this crisis deserves.
The current versions of the Senate and House bills do not include any additional funding. I cannot fathom that. Compare it to Ebola -- a horrible illness that took 11,000 lives worldwide in 2014. Congress quickly appropriated $5 billion in emergency funding. Well, the disease of opioid addiction has taken 200,000 lives and counting --15 times the toll from Ebola. And it receives zero emergency funding.
I refuse to sit back and watch more families suffer the same fate as mine. I lost my son Brian in 2011. He had finally conquered a decade-long battle with addiction, but after being substance-free for more than a year, he took his own life. My son could not escape his emotional scars, and the stigma of living with this disease.
I often think of the last time I saw Brian, just a few weeks before his death. We were sitting on the back porch, talking about the Mets and the Giants, and the conversation turned to addiction and the stigmas and insecurities he still grappled with.
"Someday," he said to me, "someday, people will realize that I am not a bad kid. I just have a disease and I am trying my hardest."
While that "someday" couldn't come soon enough for Brian, it can for so many others. So to the 100 senators and 435 members of the House of Representatives: please help save more lives from being shattered.
Gary Mendell is the Founder and CEO of Shatterproof, a national non-profit devoted to reducing the devastation to our families caused by the addiction to prescription drugs, illicit drugs and alcohol.