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Accessible Treatment: A Strategy for Addressing America's Opioid Epidemic

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Originally published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on December 27th, 2015

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By James Lewis & Margaret Davis

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All across America, overdoses are on the rise and people are dying. In 2013 alone, nearly four times as many Ohioans died from drug-induced causes than were victims of murder. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of U.S. heroin-related overdose deaths nearly quadrupled between 2002 and 2013.

But it's not just street drugs that are killing. Overdose deaths from prescription painkillers increased more than 400 percent among women and 265 percent among men between 1999 and 2013, according to the CDC. Recently, the White House took notice and announced a series of community forums on opioids after rolling out public-private partnership in October.

The current opioid epidemic is sending shock waves through communities across the nation, and the economic costs of opioid addiction are truly staggering. An April 2015 report by Matrix Global Advisors estimates that opioid abuse cost Ohio more than $1 billion in medical expenses in 2007 alone.

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Even that startling figure dramatically underrepresents the true cost of the epidemic, because it examines only health care costs without addressing the societal, economic and lost-opportunity costs associated with opioid addiction. When the economic costs of this epidemic are compared to the cost of treatment, it's clear that investments in treatment save lives and produce significant economic benefits.

Although the Affordable Care Act made significant progress in providing health care coverage to millions of Americans and expanding addiction treatment coverage, more must be done. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that from 2010 through 2013 more than 45 percent of individuals who sought treatment were turned away because they could not afford it. Either they lacked health coverage or the coverage they had did not cover the cost of treatment.

The opioid epidemic presents a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. In fact, there is already a proven resource model for addressing epidemic diseases: the Ryan White CARE Act of 1990.

The latest insatiable opioid epidemic began -- not with a drug deal -- but with a doctor's signature. Solving it requires the cooperation of the medical profession as well, the editorial board writes.

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Ryan White programs are referred to as "payers of last resort" and fund treatment for those living with HIV when no other resources are available. The program has been a remarkable success. The programs provide care to more than 500,000 people annually. In 2009, the law was extended for another four years and it is hoped that future extensions will include additional resources for these highly effective programs.

Perhaps it's time for policymakers to consider a Ryan White-style fund to treat opioid addiction. In 2013, the number of drug-induced deaths was nearly four times the number of AIDS-related deaths in 1990, when the Ryan White program was started.

Our leaders should take a bold stand and say to those struggling with opioid addiction, "You matter, and we are here to help you get better."

The American people overwhelmingly support treatment programs over criminal justice interventions. A 2014 national survey by the Pew Research Center found that two-thirds of Americans believed treatment should be prioritized over prosecution.

Some law enforcement agencies already have taken this bold step. Following dozens of fatal overdoses in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the chief of police launched a program that truly enhances public health and safety. Anyone struggling with addiction can go to the police and receive immediate treatment and care.

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James Lewis is a former Senior Policy/National Security Analyst at the Washington-based think-tank, Robert Weiner Associates. He has also worked for Student Conservation Association as a Crew Leader engaging low-income urban students in a summer (more...)

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Accessible Treatment: A Strategy for Addressing America's Opioid Epidemic