There is little doubt that the opioid epidemic is a public health emergency.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that six of 10 overdose deaths in the United States involve prescription or illegal opioids. Each day, 91 people across the country die from opioid overdoses. Between 2013 and 2015, there were 992 opioid overdose deaths in Kansas and 3,158 in Missouri.
For 50 years, Valley Hope has worked to promote recovery and reduce the human cost of alcoholism and drug dependency. Earlier this year, we analyzed several years of data to assess and understand the impact of opioids. From 2007 to 2016, the percentage of patients admitted into Valley Hope treatment facilities for opioid addiction more than doubled from 12 to 29 percent. The average age of these patients decreased from 34 to 29 years old.
In the 18-25 age range, patients battling opioid addiction increased from almost 30 percent to more than 51 percent. Sadly, the data show that opioids are disproportionately affecting and killing young adults, ending promising futures and changing families forever.
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There are critical areas that need to be addressed to help solve this crisis, and we all must work together to move ahead.
First, we should continue to comprehensively reform how doctors prescribe medication, particularly when they are working with a patient to manage pain.
Second, we must quickly build the infrastructure necessary to ensure that everyone can access treatment. Imagine the lives saved if everyone who survives an overdose could access treatment within 24 hours of an overdose.
Finally, and most importantly, we must acknowledge that working together to free people from the grip of addiction is the common goal and common good we seek. This should be the case for health insurers, policymakers and treatment providers.
There are some practical examples of things that can be done now.
Treatment providers, policymakers and payers can work together to establish a basic treatment benefit that ensures an adequate number of days of residential treatment. For decades, research has shown that length of time in treatment is a predictor of successful recovery.
Kansas, where some insurers cover only very short stays, can follow the example of states such as New Jersey that have defined and required a basic number of days of residential treatment (25-30 days) designed to help each person build a foundation for recovery. Valley Hope is working with the Kansas Legislature and state officials to enact a bill similar to what New Jersey passed earlier this year.
Beyond the initial residential stay, younger patients also would benefit greatly from moving to transitional housing for up to six months. Thereafter, having the opportunity to remain engaged in outpatient counseling for up to a full year provides an additional protective factor.
Nationally, the addiction treatment community has stepped up its efforts to innovate and use evidence based practices to engage opioid patients and to foster long-term recovery using telemedicine, mobile recovery support and expansion of medication-assisted treatment.
These actions, if we undertake them together, will foster the kind of hope necessary to solve the opioid crisis.
One of the famous sayings in Alcoholics Anonymous is, “God is never late.”
We shouldn’t be either.
Pat George is the president and CEO of Valley Hope and a former Kansas secretary of commerce. He can be reached at PatGeorge@valleyhope.org.