Although she stands at the center of the polarized debate on the Affordable Care Act, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell is looking for “common ground” initiatives that she can accomplish before Barack Obama’s presidency ends.
One is to rein in out-of-control use of addictive prescription painkillers, which Burwell calls “a devastating epidemic facing our nation.”
A related goal is to reverse an increase in heroin-related overdoses. Deaths from drug overdoses now claim more lives each year than vehicle accidents.
Burwell spoke about her initiative Monday during a visit with The Star’s editorial board. She was in Kansas City to speak at the University of Kansas Medical Center.
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The administration will use three priorities to combat fatal opioid painkiller overdoses:
▪ An antidote, naloxone, will be made more accessible to first responders.
▪ Funds will be made available for about 16 states to develop aggressive prevention programs centered on safe prescribing practices. This initiative would benefit Missouri, where overdose death rates are above the national average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The application process is underway.
▪ The department will encourage bipartisan legislation regarding opioid prescribing. It also will encourage data sharing through prescription drug monitoring programs.
Missouri is the only state that doesn’t keep a prescription database that can be used by doctors, pharmacists and law enforcement to see whether a patient is receiving excess medication. Other states complain that prescriptions are obtained and filled too readily in Missouri, allowing people to establish black markets in neighboring states.
Legislation to create such a database has been stalled in the Missouri Capitol because of concerns about privacy. But Missouri surely can fashion a bill that will cut down on misuse without exposing people who use the drugs correctly. The legislature’s failure to do so is becoming a scandal.
Burwell, who replaced former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius as HHS secretary last June, will encounter resistance from Republicans in Congress because of her duty to carry out the Affordable Care Act.
Relations could get rockier this summer if a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the King v. Burwell case upends a crucial pillar of the health law.
But Burwell is smart to enlist bipartisan help with other initiatives. Reducing deaths from painkiller abuse is a goal that should command universal enthusiasm.