Federal health officials Thursday unveiled a new strategy (PDF) geared toward reversing the steady rise in drug overdose deaths seen over the past two decades. The new approach will focus on reducing the use of prescription opioid and opiate-related drugs, which are responsible for more than half of all drug overdose deaths.
“Opioid drug abuse is a devastating epidemic facing our nation,” said HHS Secretary Sylvia Matthews Burwell in a statement. “That's why I'm taking a targeted approach to tackling this issue focused on prevention, treatment and intervention.”
Key actions within the plan will focus on providing training to health professionals to address the overprescribing of opioid painkillers. Healthcare providers wrote 259 million prescriptions for such medications in 2012, according to a July 2014 report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The plan calls for states to increase their purchase and use of naloxone, a drug that restores breathing for a person who has overdosed on heroin or painkillers.
States are allowed to use funding from block grants administered annually by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Those grants are intended to buy naloxone for states' substance abuse programs.
The grants for naloxone were proposed in President Barack Obama's fiscal 2016 budget, which would allocate $12 million in grants to states to help equip first responders in high-risk communities. The proposed budget includes $133 million in funding toward initiatives aimed at reducing opioid misuse.
Other measures within HHS' plan include expanding investment in services that use medication-assisted substance abuse treatment with such drugs as methadone and buprenonorphine. The president's budget calls for $13 million in fiscal 2016 to expand a pilot program started during fiscal 2015 that provides grants to states to purchase such medications.
The initiative includes $20 million this year for the launch this month of a drug-monitoring program for prescription medication in 16 states with high overdose rates. And $65 million would be added in 2016 to broaden the program to all states.
Asked whether the agency's new strategy marked a paring down from its more comprehensive approach toward substance abuse in the past, HHS spokeswoman Leah Hunter said the strategy aims to target evidence-based interventions that will have the biggest effect.
“HHS has taken a broad approach to the issue for many years and has been doing a lot of great work—whether through CDC or SAHMSA grants to help states with prevention efforts or research at NIH related to” medication-assisted treatment, Hunter said in an e-mail response. “That work will continue. This new initiative is not a paring down but a more targeted approach in areas where evidence shows HHS can have the most significant impact.”
The drug overdose death rate has more than doubled from 1999 through 2013, with overdose deaths now surpassing car crashes as the leading cause of mortality from injury in the U.S. In 2013, there were more than 43,000 drug overdose deaths in the U.S., with 37% involving opioid prescription medications, according to HHS.
Previous initiatives have looked to address the widespread use of opioid medications. In March 2014, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called for initiatives that incorporated both law enforcement and treatment measures that included urging first responders to carry naloxone.