Column: Congress, nonprofits and American people can slow opioid epidemic

Some issues permeate society without regard to who you are or where you come from. Opioid addiction is one of those issues. Chances are that you or someone close to you is personally affected by this epidemic. Opioid addiction is bringing unlikel...

Some issues permeate society without regard to who you are or where you come from. Opioid addiction is one of those issues.

Chances are that you or someone close to you is personally affected by this epidemic. Opioid addiction is bringing unlikely allies together in the fight against it. With continued cooperation in Congress and help from nonprofit organizations and the American people, we can limit its impact and significantly slow its progression.

In 2015, an estimated 2 million people in the United States suffered from substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers, and more than 33,000 Americans died as a result of an opioid overdose. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, nearly 12 million Americans ages 12 and older misused prescription pain medication in 2016. What’s even more alarming is that prescription opioids are often the catalyst for addiction to other drugs, including heroin. Three out of four new heroin users start out using prescription drugs.

Iowa is not immune to the devastating effects of opioid abuse. The Iowa Department of Public Health estimated that more than 200 Iowans died from opioid misuse in 2017. The Bureau of Substance Abuse reported that treatment admissions related to opioid use have more than tripled since 2005. The severity of the problem is acutely felt in Polk County, which has experienced an overdose increase of 89 percent over the past decade and accounts for the most opioid-related deaths in Iowa.

One contributing factor has been the number of prescriptions written for opioids. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, health care providers wrote 259 million prescriptions for opioid pain relievers in 2012. That’s enough for every adult in America to have a bottle of pills. Prescription opioid sales in America have increased by 300 percent since 1999 despite the fact that there has not been an overall change in the amount of pain individuals report. However, there is a silver lining. The American Medical Association recently reported a 22 percent decrease in opioid prescriptions between 2013 and 2017. Every state has seen a decline, but more needs to be done.


I’ve worked on 12 bills with Senate colleagues during this session to stem the flow of opioid abuse and help those struggling with addiction. As Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a member of the Senate Finance Committee, I’ve co-sponsored, supported and moved along multiple bills that will assist in the fight against the opioid epidemic while also serving Iowans. Bills I’ve worked on tackle issues ranging from closing loopholes that allow opioid traffickers to avoid prosecution, keeping families together while parents seek treatment and rehabilitation, and expanding telehealth opportunities in Medicare so those battling addiction in rural areas can access the help they need. One of these bills, the Fighting the Opioid Epidemic with Sunshine Act, builds upon the oversight work I’ve championed for more than a decade by requiring pharmaceutical companies to report payments made to nurse practitioners and physicians assistants to the Open Payments database. This will increase transparency about any potential conflicts of interest.

In 2016, I helped lead to passage the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), a sweeping recovery bill aimed at addressing the nation’s problem with opioids and heroin. I’m glad to note that recently a Drug Free Communities grant was awarded through CARA to the Jones County Safe and Healthy Youth Coalition in Anamosa. That grant will greatly benefit the mission of that organization and will help stem the tide of substance abuse in that area. Also in 2016, I worked with my colleagues to pass the 21st Century Cures Act, which allocated $1 billion over two years in opioid crisis grants to states like Iowa. The grants helped fund expanded treatment and prevention programs.

There’s no question that opioid abuse and addiction is a serious problem in Iowa and throughout the nation. There’s no quick fix. But there are measures that Congress can take to curb the cycle of addiction and help improve the lives of those impacted by opioid and other substance abuse. I’m proud of the bipartisan work my colleagues and I have already accomplished, but also understand there’s still a lot to be done. That’s why I’ll continue to pursue solutions for the people of Iowa who are suffering under the heavy weight of addiction.

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