I remember the silence well. In the early 1990s I attended a congressional hearing where former First Ladies Rosalynn Carter and Betty Ford shared their personal experiences with mental illness and addiction. Besides a few gasps, you could have heard a pin drop. It was a different time in Washington politics, which handled substance use and treatment policy behind closed doors. Usually only members with a loved one with a substance use disorder or those who had a large treatment facility in their state or district were vocal about the issue.
Today, more than 20 years later that attitude is beginning to shift, but there is still more work to do.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, an average of 120 people per day are dying from drug overdoses. From affluent communities in New York City to rural neighborhoods in Kentucky, these deaths are touching every state in America. No congressional district is unscathed, especially by the twin epidemics of prescription drug and heroin use. Today Republicans and Democrats alike are facing an illness that is not only robbing our communities of their residents, but imploding city, county, state and federal budgets; crowding our jails and prisons; filling our emergency rooms; and draining Medicaid and Medicare budgets.
But none of this compares to the human suffering associated with the loss of a loved one.
Recently, we've seen the Obama administration increase funding for expanded access to naloxone -- a prescription medication that can reverse an opioid overdose -- and other addiction medications. But it's not enough. At long last, we actually have an abundance of state and federal legislation aimed at addressing various aspects of the addiction crisis. We need leadership in Washington -- from the President to Congressional leadership -- to lean in and enact these new strategies by the end of this year.
One bill in particular takes the comprehensive approach we need in combatting the opioid epidemic. The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2015 (CARA), introduced in the Senate by Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Rob Portman (R-OH) and representatives Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Bobby Scott (D-VA) in the House, authorizes $80 million in new programs for prevention, treatment, recovery and criminal justice reform. These common sense ideas include:
Expanded access to naloxone
Encouraging prescriber education on addiction and managing chronic pain
Expanding prevention and treatment strategies in states to specifically focus on preventing and treating addiction while promoting sustained recovery from addiction
Increasing educational and transitional programs for incarcerated individuals and those in recovery
All of these, taken together, are important components in this sweeping legislation.
Why is CARA so important? For too long, we've had either a drug du jour addiction policy focusing on heroin in the 1970s, then crack in the 1980s, followed by a mass incarceration of individuals with addiction since that time. Finally, policymakers are realizing these strategies failed, and a strategy based on public health, safety and criminal justice reform together are all essential to making a dent in the growing overdose and death rates as well as the longstanding loss of lives due to the misuse of alcohol.
Washington is a town of incremental change, but the loss of life happening every day in America demands more than a temporary Band-Aid. We need thoughtful, immediate strategies. Nontraditional partners like the National Association of District Attorneys, the American Society of Addiction Medicine, the Major County Sheriffs Association and Young People in Recovery all agree: Congress must pass CARA.
On October 4, thousands of individuals, families and professionals affected by addiction will come together on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to mobilize greater awareness and support for the most ignored public health crisis in America. The UNITE to Face Addiction Rally -- with artists including Steven Tyler, Sheryl Crowe, Joe Walsh, The Fray, Jason Isbell and Johnny Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls -- will end the silence surrounding addiction. But that's just the beginning. The next day advocates will fill the halls of Congress to encourage elected officials and staff to pass CARA, enforce the addiction and mental health parity law and enact long overdue reforms of our criminal justice system.
It's time that Congress hold hearings and take action on these issues to end the silence and enact sensible strategies to combat addiction. The days of quiet congressional hearings and hushed conversations are over. This isn't a partisan issue. It is a human issue, and we all have a stake in it.
Carol McDaid is an individual in long-term recovery, an addiction advocate, policy director for Unite to Face Addiction, principal at Capitol Decisions, Inc. in Washington, D.C., a government relations firm where she specializes in addiction and mental health policy and co-founder of the McShin Foundation in Richmond, Virginia, a peer recovery community organization.
This post is part of a series produced by facingaddiction.org, in conjunction with their event Unite to Face Addiction (Sunday, Oct. 4, National Mall, Washington, D.C.). The blogs are also part of The Huffington Post's "What's Working" solutions-oriented journalism initiative. For more information on facing addition, visitwww.facingaddiction.org.