The Unites States of America is facing the worst health care crisis of our nation’s history. Over the past two-year period, more Americans died of opiate addiction than died in the entire Vietnam War. Drug overdoses now cause more deaths than gun violence and car crashes. In fact, accidental opioid overdoses are responsible for more deaths in 2015 than HIV/AIDS did at the height of the epidemic in 1995.
However, the AIDS epidemic can be the blueprint for the United States approach to the opioid epidemic. Once America became mobilized against AIDS, Congress orchestrated intensive efforts devoted to training and supporting clinicians, many of whom were new to the treatment of viral infections in immunocompromised patients.
Immediately, a collaboration led to one standardized set of treatment guidelines that were implemented through newly formed AIDS Education and Training Centers. Funding was provided to connect patients with capable providers of wrap-around social services supported by grants from the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program.
Once America becomes mobilized against the heroin epidemic, similarly, social workers, nurse care managers, and outreach workers could be deployed strategically to help obtain substance-abuse treatment in primary care settings, and funding incentives authorized by the Affordable Care Act (ACA), such as health homes and accountable care organizations, could help cover the costs.
The current treatment guidelines for opioid addiction just do not work. Today, thousands of patients receive medical treatment to relieve opioid withdrawal only during brief detoxification admissions, lose their tolerance to opioids and get discharged with referrals to medication-free residential or outpatient care. Of these patients, 70 to 90 percent quickly relapse and face a high risk of overdose death.
On June 5, 2017, the New York Times reported that drug overdose deaths in 2016 would most likely land someplace between 59,000 and 65,000 Americans. That is a 19 percent rise in deaths from the 52,404 recorded in 2015. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50.
But the solution is simple. We need treatment facilities, we need them now, and we need to create a radical model to accomplish the herculean task.
Tim Grover, a Lowell, Massachusetts businessman, buried his 26-year old daughter, Megan in 2014. On Christmas Eve, Megan had to leave a treatment center because of red tape. It is not clear exactly what happened that evening, but it had something to do with insurance mandates for the separation and clarification of detox facilities versus treatment centers.
No joke, it was something along the lines of my friend’s son who first detoxed himself off heroin in the basement of his mother’s house and then pounded the streets looking for a 30-day treatment facility. The only problem, he was shut-out because he had to be “referred by a licensed detox facility.”
He had no choice but to get high, go to a detox and then attempt long term treatment. Desperate, he did just that. But now his mother visits him in the cemetery. The first bag of heroin he bought was Fentanyl, and it ended his life.
Back to Tim Grover and his daughter, Megan. The Christmas Eve debacle wasn’t their first rodeo. After a serious automobile accident when Megan was 17, she was prescribed OxyContin to treat pain from her injuries. That, unfortunately, like so many countless others, rang the bell that sounded rehab after rehab and relapse after relapse.
But on the night of Dec. 29, 2014, Tim received a phone call from Megan. She was extremely happy. There was a bed available in a Boston treatment facility the next morning. Tim told Megan he loved her and went to bed at rest.
Tomorrow never came. Tim Grover buried Megan on Jan. 5, 2015, and 24 hours later, Tim purchased a vacant Riverside School in Lowell, Massachusetts and opened the residential treatment home for women, Megan’s House, on Sep. 30, 2015. Tim Grover was angry at God, angry at the system that failed his daughter, and felt socially responsible for helping other young women like Megan.
It is time to be socially responsible and mobilize America against this health crisis. We can never Make America Great Again if we just stand by and watch the impact heroin is having on poverty, joblessness, crime, and the deteriorating communities of the Heartland of our great nation.
As Winston Churchill said, “You can always count on America to do the right thing ― after they have tried everything else,” and now is the time to do the right thing. Treatment. Treatment. Treatment. We can not sit back any longer and watch 4,367 Americans die every month from an accidental overdose of heroin. That’s right, 144 people will die today from an accidental overdose of opioids.
Ritchie Farrell is the author of I AM A HEROIN ADDICT.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.