Every day 140 Americans die from an opioid overdose, according to the CDC. In Pontiac, where Oakland Family Services is headquartered, and throughout the Metro Detroit area, the abuse of opiate prescription painkillers and heroin continues to kill people, destroy families and tax the resources of law enforcement and medical professionals.
As president and CEO of Oakland Family Services, an Oakland County nonprofit on the frontlines in the battle against a rising death toll, I feel it is important for people to not only know that there are treatment options available, but that when funded and supported appropriately, treatment works.
There is considerable stigma surrounding the misuse of these drugs and based on this, a few things should be clear:
1. Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, “Today is a great day to start shooting heroin and lose my family.” Those who suffer from substance use disorders frequently become addicted through prescribed painkillers. They also often self-medicate because of undiagnosed and untreated mental health issues or a history of trauma in their lives.
2. Addiction is a medical issue, not a moral shortcoming. The medical community now recognizes this as scientific fact and we in the behavioral health community use the diagnosis of “substance use disorder” for those who are fighting addiction, shunning terms like “addict.” Addiction is not a choice, addiction is chronic medical condition, just like diabetes, that requires appropriate medical and behavioral interventions.
3. Treatment works. Recovery happens and people can get better, but those facing the crisis of addiction in their lives need assistance and access to counseling.
At the end of October, President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency; comments from the Trump administration hearken back to “Just Say No,” and the War on Drugs in the 1980s. Hard data proves that approach failed in the 1980s, and it’s certainly not the message needed now.
Oakland County has done an excellent job of funding the public system for those with Medicaid or without insurance, but gutting the federal budget for Medicaid and repealing the Affordable Care Act would limit the ability of those struggling with opiate addiction to seek help. Cutting $1.5 trillion from the budget in Medicare and Medicaid services will have a catastrophic effect on funding and available services moving forward. The elimination of the individual mandate as part of tax reform will ensure another $25 billion is cut from Medicare and will certainly raise insurance premiums overall, thereby diminishing access to affordable and quality treatment services.
Funding is necessary to help fight this battle, which the federal emergency fund does not contain. It is great to hear the administration tout telemedicine and provision of life saving overdose reversal drugs like naloxone and those used in medication-assisted treatment, but only funding will make these a reality. We must spread the word that this epidemic, like most public health crises, can be managed and nearly eliminated if we obtain the appropriate dollars to fund high quality treatment services. Now is the time to eliminate the stigma that people choose to be addicted to drugs, that drug use is a problem only in poverty stricken areas and that if people just never started using drugs our problems would vanish.
Treatment works. People get better. Now let’s be sure we advocate to match the rhetoric we are hearing with the funding required for real solutions.
Jaimie Clayton is president & CEO of Oakland Family Services.