On an early September morning last year, a Springfield, Mo. mom walked into her daughter’s bedroom and experienced a tragedy no parent should ever have to face. Following a four-year battle with opioid addiction, her 20-year old daughter, a former high school cheerleader, was face-down in her bed after suffering a fatal heroin overdose.
Her struggle with addiction began after she was prescribed pain medication for injuries stemming from a car accident. This story is repeated in communities in Missouri and across the nation. In 2016, nearly three Missourians died every day from an opioid overdose. Drug overdose deaths have surpassed motor vehicle accidents as the number one accidental cause of death in our state.
I’ve met with families, first responders, and medical professionals across Missouri to hear how the federal government can support their efforts to combat the opioid epidemic. One thing I’ve consistently heard is that we need to make sure we are providing the resources necessary to address this public health crisis.
Earlier this month, Congress passed and the president signed a budget agreement providing $6 billion in additional funding over the next two years for opioid-related programs. As chairman of the subcommittee that funds the Department of Health and Human Services, we’ve increased funding to respond to the opioid epidemic by 1,300 percent, or $745 million, in just the past two years.
Funding is an important part of this fight, but it’s not a silver bullet. There are several important steps we must take to combat this crisis, including: improving treatment services, preventing addiction in the first place, and developing new non-addictive treatments for pain management.
While this public health crisis affects communities both large and small, drug overdose deaths have impacted rural areas particularly hard, with deaths in rural areas surpassing those in cities. We can improve treatment and prevention services in rural communities by ensuring they have the flexibility to respond to their unique challenges. This includes expanding access to comprehensive treatments, which means everything from telemedicine to supporting the training of behavioral health specialists as well as primary physicians and nurses to identify the first signs of addiction.
Improving opioid treatment also requires expanding access to mental health services. Studies have shown that mood and anxiety disorders double the risk of addiction. Health care professionals must recognize that a behavioral health issue, like addiction, should be treated like any other health issue.
The second critical step to combat this epidemic is preventing individuals from becoming addicted in the first place. We need to identify where the problems are, where they are most severe, and try to predict where they might go next. We also need to do a better job of making sure physicians, dentists and individuals are fully aware of the risks associated with taking opioid-based pain medicine.
Lastly, we won’t be able to get this crisis under control unless we make sure people with acute or chronic pain have access to non-addictive pain medications or alternative treatments. Developing new pain treatments as adequate alternatives to opioids addresses the core problem of the crisis – effective pain management.
The opioid epidemic has touched people of all ages, from every background, in communities across the nation. Tackling this crisis will require a sustained federal commitment and multi-faceted approach. Addressing the opioid epidemic is a priority for many Missouri families I talk to, particularly in rural areas, and it will continue to be one of my top priorities in the Senate.