Reversing the Prescription Drug Abuse Epidemic

Our nation is in the midst of an unprecedented epidemic of drug overdose deaths. Overdose deaths have increased five-fold since 1980. In 2009, prescription drug overdoses overtook every other cause of injury death in the United States, outnumbering fatalities from car crashes for the first time.

Prescription drugs, especially opioid pain relievers such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methadone, have largely driven this tragic increase. We're losing nearly 17,000 of our friends, family members, and neighbors each year. And with every death, the fabric of a home, a family, a community is torn.

This is a deeply troubling and challenging public health problem that is an enormous priority for our Department and President Obama. What gives us hope is the knowledge that we have the power to bring an end to this epidemic. These deaths are preventable.

While the problem is complex and multi-dimensional, we know that the over-prescription of opioid pain relievers is a driver of the problem. A recent CDC report showed that 259 million opioid prescriptions were written in 2012 alone. That's enough for every American adult to have a bottle. Multiple studies have shown that a small percentage of prescribers are responsible for prescribing the majority of opioids.

To effectively address this challenge, we need a strong, collaborative, and sustained response. That is why HHS recently hosted a working meeting with state officials from across the country to share best practices and discuss how federal and state governments can work together to put a stop to the epidemic. This meeting for the first time assembled governmental partners from across the country to share state successes and comprehensively focus on prescriber-targeted interventions.

Because states have the ability to regulate health care practices and monitor prescriptions, many of the critical policy levers exist at the state level. States are uniquely positioned to implement strategies that take into account the needs of patients at high risk of becoming addicted, while ensuring access to safe, effective pain treatment for those who need it. In addition, there are opportunities to provide prescribers with the knowledge and tools to help them improve clinical practice.

This meeting was an important step in expanding the reach of knowledge from those states that have already had success in areas such as provider oversight and collaboration, prescription drug monitoring programs, and prescribing guidelines and education.

Some states have already seen great success with provider oversight initiatives. For example, following legislative action taken in 2010, Florida saw oxycodone overdose deaths decline more than 50 percent in just two years as well as a 24 percent reduction in oxycodone prescribing.

Several other states shared their experiences with just how effective prescription drug monitoring initiatives can be, especially when systems are universal, updated in real-time, and integrated with health IT. We also heard about provider guidelines and education initiatives at the state level that are improving the way providers prescribe and monitor patient use of these drugs.

This meeting was an important step in building a long-term partnership with states to develop and implement policies and programs that can reduce prescription drug abuse. Together, we can achieve our shared goal of strengthening the public health of this nation by reversing this epidemic.