The Buzz This Week

Recent reports and initiatives by the federal government highlight the severity of the opioid epidemic in the U.S. In September, the Biden Administration announced the beginning of the State Opioid Response grant program that will provide $1.5 billion in funding to states and territories in its first year. The grant program is part of a larger National Drug Control Strategy and the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Overdose Prevention Strategy that focus on untreated addiction and drug trafficking—2 critical drivers of the epidemic.

The grant program will expand high-impact harm reduction interventions, such as more freely distributing naloxone (a lifesaving medication that can reverse an opioid overdose) throughout communities, ensuring evidence-based treatment for those at the highest risk of overdose, and improving data systems and research that guide drug policy development.

Also in September, a congressional report from the Joint Economic Committee found that the opioid crisis cost the U.S. economy $1.47 trillion in 2020, a $487 billion increase from 2019, and a 37% increase from 2017. The report also found that Americans of color have a harder time receiving addiction treatment because they often have less access to affordable healthcare and are less likely to be properly prescribed medications that can reduce the risk of fatal opioid overdoses. In 2021, overdose deaths topped 100,000 lives for the first time, even as opioid prescription in America decreased for the 12th consecutive year—suggesting the total cost of the epidemic is likely to continue to increase. The human cost of the epidemic has been immense: Nearly 1 million Americans have died from a drug overdose since 1999, with around 75% of those deaths involving an opioid.

Why It Matters: 

Healthcare organizations are on the front lines of the opioid epidemic. Rates of opioid-related inpatient stays and Emergency Department visits have risen dramatically during the epidemic, placing significant strain on hospitals. Positive actions by hospitals and physicians have resulted in a 46% decrease in opioid prescriptions from 2012 to 2021. Similarly, the use of state prescription drug monitoring programs has increased in every state. However, as the number of drug overdose deaths continues to increase, healthcare organizations can take further steps to curtail the epidemic. 

Groups such as the American Medical Association, the National Association of County and City Health Officials, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, and others have developed toolkits and game plans for healthcare organizations to positively impact their community’s response to the opioid epidemic through a variety of means, including: 

  • Partnering with local and federal governments to influence better access to evidence-based care and to support increased utilization of harm-reduction strategies and reduce the stigma around them.
  • Working with health insurance companies and other payers to promote and expand the use of non-opioid pain care alternatives.
  • Addressing social determinants of health that influence opioid use (such as housing insecurity and employment) within the community. 
  • Improving data collection abilities to better identify people at risk of developing substance use disorders and establishing adequate intervention methods that address racial inequities.

Successfully implementing these responses will require strong collaboration between healthcare, community, and government institutions. But healthcare organizations play an especially important role in addressing the epidemic—as they touch patients at the front-end as prescribers and care providers, and later on as care givers for those who have been affected by overdoses.

Related Links: 

Joint Economic Committee:
The Economic Toll of the Opioid Crisis Reached Nearly $1.5 Trillion in 2020

White House:
Biden-⁠Harris Administration Announces New Actions and Funding to Address the Overdose Epidemic and Support Recovery

American Medical Association:
2022 Overdose Epidemic Report

Journal of American Medical Association:
Geographic Trends in Opioid Overdoses in the US From 1999 to 2020 

Why Overdose Deaths Skyrocketed After Opioid Prescriptions Dropped

Harvard School of Public Health:
What Led to the Opioid Crisis—and How to Fix It

Editorial advisor: Roger Ray, MD, Chief Physician Executive.

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