Federal health officials plan to spend $94 million to help more than 270 health centers expand substance abuse treatment services in the government's expanding effort to combat the current opioid and heroin epidemic. There are now more than 30,000 overdose deaths a year from those drugs.
HHS announced plans on Friday to award grants to federally qualified health centers in 45 states. The funding is expected to lead to the hiring of up to 800 health professionals and expand capacity to treat an additional 124,000 patients for substance abuse.
“The opioid epidemic is one of the most pressing public health issues in the United States today,” HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said in a statement. “Expanding access to medication-assisted treatment and integrating these services in health centers bolsters nationwide efforts to curb opioid misuse and abuse.”
In a call with reporters on Friday, HHS Region Five Director Kathleen Falk said the department identified three key areas for improving and expanding treatment services. One is focusing on educating health professionals to improve their opioid prescribing practices. “We know that that is a really important component of our overall effort to end this epidemic,” she said.
Since powerful painkillers such as oxycodone and Percocet were introduced in the 1990s, the number of prescriptions written for opioids has increased exponentially. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, doctors wrote as many as 259 million prescriptions for opioid pain relievers in 2012, enough for every American adult to have their own bottle of pills.
The easy availability of opioids contributed to 4 million Americans in 2013 using pain relievers for nonmedical purposes, the CDC estimates. A 2014 research letter published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that from 2008 through 2011, the majority of those at highest risk for overdose—frequent nonmedical users—were more likely to get their drugs through a doctor's prescription than from a friend or relative.
Such widespread availability of opioids has led to increases in both heroin use, the rate of which doubled between 2002 and 2013, and drug overdose deaths, which now occur more frequently than car crash fatalities in the U.S.
The grants will also increase patient access to medication-assisted treatment, which uses drugs such as methadone and buprenorphine to reduce withdrawal symptoms for people seeking to kick their opioid or heroin dependency. Those drug are usually given in conjunction with patient counseling.
Thirdly, the grants will increase the availability of naloxone, which counters the effects of a drug overdose and has grown in demand over the past several years among law enforcement agencies. Legal protections now exist in 42 states and the District of Columbia for medical professionals who dispense the prescription drug.
In Baltimore, efforts to make naloxone more accessible went a step further in February when the city's health commissioner, Dr. Leana Wen, launched an online program to train residents how to use the medication to counteract a drug overdose. Called the “Don't Die” campaign, the program follows Wen's earlier order making naloxone available to the entire city.
Wen acknowledges that increasing access to naloxone was not enough to turn the tide of substance abuse. She called the new funding a “significant first step” toward expanding treatment services in her city, where three health centers are set to receive more than $1 million combined.
“We can save someone's life today, which is critical, but unless we can connect them into treatment immediately at the time that they need it, then we're only treading water,” Wen said.
Friday's announcement is part of a White House initiative to emphasize treatment over incarceration in the war on drugs. In February, President Barack Obama's proposed budget called for spending $1.1 billion over two years toward fighting heroin and opioid drug abuse.