NEW YORK—The U.S. surgeon general wants policymakers, healthcare providers and the public to treat substance abuse the same as chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease.
Calling the opioid epidemic one of the highest priorities of the Obama administration, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said the ultimate solution will require the country changing the way it thinks about addiction. He made his comments Thursday while visiting an substance abuse treatment center in the Bronx run by Montefiore Health System.
Murthy claimed that government action or medical intervention alone will not solve the opioid epidemic. “We have to help people understand that addiction is not a character flaw. It's not a bad choice," he said. "It's a chronic illness of the brain, one that requires the same compassion, skill and urgency in treatment that diabetes or heart disease or cancer require."
Prescription painkillers and heroin were responsible for 60% of the more than 47,000 overdose-related deaths that occurred in 2014.
Medical professionals at the Montefiore facility help patients with a variety programs including medication-assisted opioid treatment, mental health counseling and vocational training.
During the tour, three long-term recovery patients told officials about their experiences. The Bronx facility reports 93% of its patients remain in the program 30 days after initiating treatment.
New York City loses two people to opioid overdoses every day, and the Bronx has been more affected by the epidemic than any other borough. According to the New York City Department of Health of Mental Hygiene, there was a 200% increase in benzodiazepine-involved overdoses in the city between 2000 and 2014.
Public officials at the event included New York City first lady Chirlane McCray; Dr. Herminia Palacio, deputy mayor of health and human services; and Dr. Mary Bassett, commissioner of the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene .
Murthy noted that the Obama administration had recently requested Congress appropriate $1.1 billion to fight the opioid epidemic. A substantial portion of the funds would go towards creating additional treatment centers like the Montefiore Wellness Center.
Despite federal, state and local efforts to combat the epidemic, Murthy said the stigma surrounding substance abuse and addiction is still one of the biggest obstacles preventing deployment of a comprehensive approach.
“As I travel around the country, I encounter people who tell me they wouldn't mind if there was a new cancer treatment center built in their neighborhood or a new center for heart disease," Murthy said. "But they worry about a center for substance abuse disorders being built in their neighborhood because they worry it will attract the wrong kind of people.”
"As a country we think about addiction differently than we do other chronic illnesses," he said, "but we have to change that.”
New York City has 12 substance abuse treatment facilities funded by Health Resources and Services Administration grants. Another four clinics should be opening soon for adolescent services, according to Sarah Church, executive director of Montefiore's division of substance abuse.