The Opioid Crisis and Time Magazine

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It's not enough to publicly acknowledge the opioids problem

It almost escaped our attention. But there it sat—the latest issue of Time magazine, with a cover story declaring opioids the "worst addiction crisis America has ever seen."

We all had read the story, and seen the cover. In fact, for us, it wasn't news. We'd been wrestling with the dramatic rise in prescription pain pill and heroin misuse for some time.

Now, though, as we waited to see the Congresswoman, each quietly reviewing the points we wanted to make, the magazine on her staff's table captured our attention in a serendipitous way.

Here was Time magazine—an American icon—validating our issue just in time for our visit.

It was a good sign as we prepared to make the case for investing federal time, energy and money to address the problem. The magazine article reinforced that this is no longer the isolated issue of a parent whose teenage daughter died at a party from a heroin overdose just a year after getting introduced to pain pills found in the medicine cabinet. It's no longer the isolated issue of a teenager whose grandmother slipped away after taking a lethal combination of fentanyl and hydrocodone, prescribed to her by two different doctors. This is no longer the isolated issue of a young athlete who relapsed and died two weeks after treatment for an opioid use disorder that began with oxycodone following a shoulder surgery. And it's no longer the isolated report of a small town like New Bedford, Mass., crying for help after experiencing 15 overdoses in a 24-hour period.

The opioids issue is no longer isolated at all. And what Time's cover captured is that the whole nation is now sharing concern, sadness and anger over the unnecessary loss of life associated with this crisis.

A day earlier, we at the Hazelden Betty Ford's Recovery Advocacy, along with our friends at the Christie Foundation, hosted a Capitol Hill symposium on Preventing Opioid Deaths Among Young People. Speakers included five members of Congress, representing both chambers and both sides of the aisle, and we had more people than seats.

The turnout was not surprising. This is an issue that affects every single Congressional district. And with more than a hundred Americans dying every day from drug overdose and millions more—in all corners of country and from all socio-economic backgrounds—struggling to overcome addiction, it's time to act.

As we waited in one of the 15 Congressional offices we visited that week, making the case for the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) and the Safer Prescribing of Controlled Substances Act, the cover of Time offered hope—hope that our message would not be an isolated call for action, but instead a prominent and credible voice in a chorus. And hope that the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation's experience would offer a welcome bit of assurance for Members who want to know that help and healing are possible for the parents, children, brothers, sisters and friends that are their constituents.

I think we were heard that day. And as passionate advocates all over the country gathered to rally on the National Mall on Oct. 4, 2015 the chorus became even louder.

But obstacles remain. The Congress is now dealing with several bills aimed at addressing the opioid crisis—many more than the two we were devoting our advocacy to that day. All are well intentioned, and we support aspects of each we have reviewed. The challenge, as it so often is, may be helping our leaders build consensus and package their ideas together.

Policymakers also know there is no panacea. The opioid crisis, and addiction in general, have roots in various aspects of our culture, which are not easily changed. With federal attention and money at a premium, lawmakers may be hesitant to invest if they don't see clearly how proposals address the problem. As advocates, we need to continue demonstrating that solutions like drug courts, collegiate recovery programs, recovery housing, prescriber education, overdose reversal drugs, recovery community organizations, and evidence-based treatment actually work.

We also need our lawmakers to come to the table willing to do something. It's not enough to publicly acknowledge the problem and empathize with the families of 40,000 lost lives a year. These are preventable deaths, and just 15 years ago, there were far fewer. We can actually do something about this. CARA comes with a price tag of $80 million, and that's a lot of money, to be sure. But in the federal budget, it's a relatively modest amount. And, in the case of CARA, bipartisan support is there, from influential Members of Congress like Republican Senators Rob Portman, Orrin Hatch and Lindsey Graham and Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Sheldon Whitehouse, to name just a few. 

Our sense, from that day on the Hill and other observations, is that lawmakers are indeed willing to do something. So, let's talk about what makes sense, get multiple bills the committee hearings they deserve and then unite around common solutions. In fact, I urge Members of Congress to please cosponsor multiple bills if that's what will propel the issue forward.

We can reach consensus later, but we have to ensure the dialogue takes place first.

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