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Opioid Abuse Has Become America’s Forgotten Crisis

Editor’s note: This piece by Rep. David McKinley originally appeared in The Hill.

If parents understand one thing, it’s the importance of multi-tasking.

Each day, parents are faced with a to-do list — getting Timmy to his soccer game, ensuring all the household chores are done, and making sure a meal is on the table when everyone gets home. During the Covid-19 pandemic many families have added balancing working and schooling from home to that list. In the face of a crisis, resilient families have been forced to balance all of these priorities. Why can’t Congress do the same?

America is suffering from two epidemics: COVID-19 and substance abuse. Yet, Congress has virtually ignored the overdose crisis over the last year. With people isolated from their family and loved ones, massive job losses, and increased economic uncertainty, many people are anxious and are at risk of turning towards drugs and alcohol as a method to escape.

Even before the pandemic, overdose deaths increased by 18 percent nationwide. Last year alone, overdose and drug death rates spiked in places like Alleghany County, Maryland, where overdose deaths rose by 111%. In my hometown of Wheeling, there was a 55% increase in drug-related deaths. This is no coincidence.

In the early days of the pandemic, Congress was focused on providing the tools to fight the public health crisis — developing a vaccine, expanding testing, and ensuring a supply of PPE — as well as providing relief for families and businesses hurt by the economic fallout.

A year later, there are several COVID vaccines available and millions of Americans are getting vaccinated each week. Thanks to this unprecedented effort, America appears to be turning a corner, with cases, hospitalizations, and deaths falling.

The same can’t be said for the overdose epidemic.

Last year around 400,000 people died from COVID and around 80,000 people died from drugs. That equates to 480,000 people who unnecessarily lost their lives.

However, the response given to both problems is not proportionate. While COVID deaths outnumber drug-related deaths five to one, the federal government will spend 750-times more on COVID than opioids. Congress made it clear one crisis was more important than the other.

The challenge Congress may face relates to the stigma around addiction.

In 2019, an estimated 10.1 million people misused opioids.

However, over 95% of those drugs were prescribed by someone they trusted, a healthcare professional. People assume that people become addicted to substances obtained from a street corner or in a dark alley way when that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

This American drug crisis will continue to wreak havoc on families if nothing more is done. Congress needs to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time and provide appropriate attention to both crises.

Fighting the opioid crisis has attracted bipartisan support in the past. Over the last five years Congress has passed three major bipartisan bills. All of these provided substantial resources to improve prevention and treatment.

Contrast that with this latest partisan COVID relief bill, where substance abuse advocates like myself and others were rejected when we proposed additional opioid-specific funding. In the end, Democrats only allocated $1.75 billion out of $1.9 trillion to combat the opioid crisis. That’s less than a tenth of one percent.

Another way Congress can combat the addiction crisis is to prioritize and implement policy changes that they once championed not too long ago. In 2017 and 2018, the Energy and Commerce Committee held over 10 hearings on this issue. During the last Congress there was only one hearing.

These hearings led to comprehensive substance abuse legislation being signed into law in 2018, as well as a report outlining more than a dozen recommendations on ways to combat the drug epidemic. Nearly three years later, Congress has barely touched these suggestions.

There would be bipartisan support for much-needed funding to combat the overdose crisis, implement policies to improve access to treatment and recovery services, and encourage alternative treatment options for those who suffer from chronic illnesses and pain. Why aren’t we doing that?

Congress needs to take a page from busy families who multitask to survive. Government should be able to manage the priorities of a nation, including the overdose epidemic, even when other crises arise. It’s time Congress refocus our resources and deliver what Americans need now: hope.

Representative David B. McKinley represents West Virginia’s First Congressional District. He serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and is co-chair of the Congressional Addiction, Treatment, and Recovery Caucus.

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