Q: How serious is the nation’s opioid crisis?
A: The impact of this expanding, pervasive addiction spans the social-economic spectrum in American society, tearing apart families and creating a consequential public health crisis in its wake. For the first time ever, drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for Americans under age 50. If that doesn’t get your attention, consider the eye-opening revelation that U.S. life expectancy has dropped for the first time in decades. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) attributes the second consecutive yearly decline to a 21 percent rise in the death rate from drug overdoses. The CDC also reports that two-thirds of drug overdose deaths between 2015 and 2016 involved opioids. And it’s happening right here in Iowa. The Iowa Department of Health estimates more than 200 Iowans died from opioid misuse last year. One fatality from a drug overdose is one death too many. In recent years, the proliferation of prescription pain killers to treat chronic pain fueled a cycle of dependence and overdose deaths. In 2012, U.S. health care providers wrote 259 million prescriptions for opioid painkillers. As more opioid pain killers found their way into home medicine cabinets, the risk for misuse climbed and a cycle of addiction grew into a crisis. According to the CDC, prescribing practices are becoming more restrictive and some providers are showing leadership by decreasing the number of prescriptions for opioids. The American Medical Association reports a 22 percent drop in national opioid prescriptions by physicians over a four-year period. In addition, the American Dental Association announced a new policy that includes limits on the amount of opioids prescribed by dentists. However, as prescribing methods tighten, users are turning to cheaper alternatives such as heroin and synthetic opioids, including fentanyl and methamphetamines. As a result, mortality rates from opioid-related overdose continue to climb.
Q: What is Congress doing to help turn the tide in local communities?
A: Drug addiction and overdose deaths are not a partisan issue. Illicit drug use and drug disorders are a humanitarian crisis that are devastating to American households, the workplace and neighborhoods. Criminal drug trafficking rings and methamphetamine distributors have long peddled poison in local communities across Iowa. The human toll and harm to public safety continues despite orchestrated efforts by community coalitions to strengthen prevention, treatment, recovery and enforcement. The opioid crisis places a heavy burden on social services, emergency rooms and local law enforcement. Congress has enacted two major laws that address the opioid crisis, including resources for prevention and prescription monitoring programs, addiction treatment and public health measures to address drug abuse, misuse and overdose. I’m glad to report more help is on the way. As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, I recently secured approval for another five bipartisan bills that will steer more resources for social services, health providers and law enforcement to address substance abuse and addiction in local communities and to stop the flow of illicit controlled substances. That makes 10 bills I am leading or co-sponsoring in the 115th Congress to help turn this dangerous tide. The package of bills includes measures requiring drug companies to publicly disclose payments made to nurse practitioners and physician assistants; boosting participation in the drug take-back program to collect expired or unneeded prescription painkillers; tracking data on pharmacies and medical providers to prevent illegal sales of prescription painkillers; providing resources for families to stay intact when one member is participating in a drug treatment program; streamlining record-keeping protocol for substance abuse disorders in Medicaid to compile better data on what works and what doesn’t; and, improving access to substance abuse treatment via telehealth technology for Medicare recipients and by increasing access to inpatient services. Solving this crisis will take an all hands on deck effort to raise public awareness. There is no quick fix or magic wand that will make the pain and addiction go away. As your Senator, I am also aware of the needs of Iowans who suffer from pain. That is why I support efforts such as those at the National Institutes of Health to find new non-opioid pain treatments. As a society, we can’t afford to ignore this problem. The gist of the crisis boils down to this blunt truth: it’s a matter of life and death.