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Opinion: Funding for opioid crisis not nearly enough

Rae Green

The opioid crisis is, by most measures, one of the worst epidemics in modern history. Opioid overdoses take 120-130 lives per day in the United States. Closer to home, nearly 2,000 Michiganians lose their life to the deadly addiction each year. The harsh reality is that in Michigan, an overdose is more likely to take your life than a car crash.

A lot of headlines were generated recently by the news that Michigan will receive $35 million in federal funding through the State Opioid Response Grant. While any additional funding to address this crisis is positive news, after analyzing the environment across the state, we must ask: Can $35 million even make a dent in the problem?

Funding provided through the State Opioid Response Grant is distributed to states based on severity and population. The national average of opioid deaths is 14 per 100,000 people. In Michigan, that ratio is 21 per 100,000, well above the national average.

While $35 million sounds like a lot of money, given that we have had year after year of underfunded treatment for those with a substance abuse disorder (SUD), it is likely just a drop in the bucket. 

In the United States, only 21% of people suffering from SUDs are receiving treatment — the lowest treatment rate among major diseases. Here in Michigan, more than 370,000 privately insured individuals are living with an SUD, but only 13% are receiving treatment.

Common reasons for not getting treatment include not being able to pay for treatment, not having adequate insurance coverage, not enough providers and reluctance to seek care. Additionally, with only 10% of medical schools across the country teaching addiction treatment, access to primary care physicians who are familiar with and recognize the symptoms of addiction needs to increase.

The impact of SUDs goes well beyond the lives of those addicted. Addiction impacts families, friendships and even the workplace. According to the National Safety Council, prescription drug misuse costs the U.S. $25.6 billion to $53.4 billion in lost productivity. So, yes, while the funding we are receiving is a good start, it is not enough. If we are going to be serious about addressing the issue, we must start by prioritizing (and funding) those tools that have been proven to work.

Containers depicting OxyContin prescription pill bottles lie on the ground in front of the Department of Health and Human Services' headquarters in Washington as protesters demonstrate against the FDA's opioid prescription drug approval practices.

When it comes to treatment, medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is one of the primary evidence-based options for opioids. MAT is the use of medications in combination with counseling and behavioral therapies for the treatment of substance use disorders. Right now, only half of the people who suffer from opioid use disorder (OUD) have access to MAT.

In addition, we must help break down the barriers to treatment, adopting a real-life recovery approach versus one-size-fits all cookie cutter treatments. We must commit to assessing each patient individually, view it as disease management versus episodic treatment, and develop a program to fit their life. It isn’t easy, but it works.

As someone providing essential counseling to those with substance use disorders every day, I am grateful for the continued support we receive from the federal government related to the ongoing opioid crisis. However, if we truly want to tackle this issue, it is going to take far more support — not only from the federal government, but also our medical universities, the healthcare industry and the general public.

We must work together to develop and support preventative measures, including more comprehensive education in our schools and workplaces, for prevention is the key to solving this crisis. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts. As author and noted behavioral neuroscientist Dr. Judith Grisel says, “Addiction may be the most formidable health problem we face,” but I’m confident it can be done.

Rae Green, founder and president of Sanford Addiction Treatment Centers, an addiction treatment facility offering comprehensive real-life recovery services, is a licensed advanced alcohol and drug counselor.