The opioid epidemic in the United States is wreaking havoc across the country. The statistics are staggering, and they continue to get worse. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 33,000 people died from opioid addiction in 2015. Reports suggest the number was close to 50,000 in 2016. The CDC also reports that currently an estimated 91 people die every day from an opioid overdose.
Despite all of this sad and shocking data, many Americans are unaware of just how serious the problem is. To further compound the problem, Americans may not know that their prescription painkillers are highly potent, powerfully addictive opioids. When your doctor prescribes painkillers, you’re probably receiving and taking opioids in different forms. For most people, this isn’t a problem. You may take a couple of doses and then dispose of the rest. But for millions of Americans, being prescribed opioids for pain is just that start of a long-term problem, one that’s costing the country dollars and lives.
The Better Care Reconciliation Act, the Senate healthcare reform bill currently being discussed in Congress, allots some money to address this growing opioid crisis, but experts say it doesn’t even touch the surface on what it will take to fight widespread addiction. Here’s a closer look at the drug and the epidemic that’s sweeping the nation.
Opioids are a class of drugs that include painkillers, such as OxyContin, oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine and codeine. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) classifies the street drug heroin as an opioid. Opioids work by blocking receptors that communicate physical pain to your brain. When ingested, opioids rapidly move through your body’s bloodstream, creating an almost instantaneous feeling of physical pleasure. When taken for a short period of time, prescription painkillers are generally safe. However, that immediate feeling of relief and calm is one of the primary reasons why the drugs are so addictive, and many people who take the drugs for pain relief feel they need them to function normally long after the pain has gone.
Opioids and Heroin Addiction
Unfortunately, many Americans who struggle with prescription painkillers often turn to heroin when their doctors stop the prescriptions. Heroin offers people a similar feeling of euphoria to that of prescription painkillers. According to NIDA, nearly half of people who use heroin report using prescription painkillers first. Heroin is made from morphine, and when individuals either snort, smoke or inject it, the body immediately turns the heroin back into morphine. The body’s response to heroin is immediate and euphoric, which leads to a powerful mental and physical addiction that cripples the lives of those who struggle with the drug.
Geographic Locations Hit the Hardest
According to a report by NBC News, Montgomery County in Ohio leads the nation in opioid overdoses resulting in death. Ohio has one of the fastest growing percentages of people per capita who are addicted to opioids. The state ranked in the top five in 2015 of death due to an overdose of drugs. New Hampshire, West Virginia, Rhode Island and Kentucky rounded out the list. Data released by the CDC showed that drug-related deaths, primarily from opioids, rose dramatically in Southern regions of the nation and the Northeast.
One of the biggest concerns with opioid addiction is that it hits people hard regardless of demographics, race, economic status or social status. Several states issue more prescriptions for painkillers than their actual populations. This sobering statistic has led legislators in some states to propose bills that limit the length of time and dose for prescribing painkillers. In early 2017, Ohio began limiting the amount of prescription painkillers doctors can prescribe. Doctors can only prescribe seven days’ worth of painkillers to adults and five days for children under 18.
Women and Opioid Addiction
Over the past several years, the opioid epidemic, specifically heroin, has had a significant impact on women. Some experts suggest that women are now the face of the problem. From 2002 to 2013, heroin use among women more than doubled, and emergency room visits by women experiencing an opioid overdose doubled from 2009 to 2014.
Women are highly vulnerable to opioids due to several physical and biological factors. Studies suggest that 50 million women in America suffer from some type of chronic pain, and women are more likely to seek treatment than men. Women also suffer more from musculoskeletal pain and experience a higher pain intensity than most men. With doctors prescribing more opioids for pain relief over the past decade, women who sought treatment for their chronic pain were vulnerable to the addictive power of opioid drugs. Additionally, women tend to absorb drugs faster than men due to their metabolism and smaller body mass index.
Opioid Addiction and Suicide
From the thousands of deaths that occur due to opioid addiction, many of them are not accidents. Uncontrollable use of opioids leads most people down a path of immeasurable destruction, and often the drug’s overwhelming power leads people to one frightening conclusion – suicide. Although suicide rates are significantly higher for anyone struggling with substance abuse, the numbers are even higher for those battling opioid addiction.
In a guest post for the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Dr. Maria Oquendo, president of the American Psychiatric Association, stated that the risk of suicide among veteran men struggling with opioid addiction was two times higher than the national average while the risk for veteran women was eight times higher. When compared to the suicide rates of unaffected veteran women with comorbidities (other psychological factors), the suicide rate was still two times higher for veteran women with opioid use disorders.
Even among the civilian population, opioid addiction is high and leads to an increased risk of suicide. In a separate study, researchers found that people who misused opioids weekly were 200 times more likely to attempt suicide than unaffected people. Still worse, in a separate review of data, researchers found that people who suffer from opioid use disorders face a 13-fold increase in the risk of death by suicide.
Healthcare Reform and the Opioid Crisis
Many media outlets report that the Senate’s proposed healthcare reform bill would have a devastating impact on the treatment of opioid abuse. Known as the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA), the latest Senate proposal would make deep cuts to Medicaid by phasing out current funding for the program’s expansion under Obamacare guidelines. The BCRA would also remove the requirement under Obamacare that Medicaid must cover treatment for addiction under enhanced plans. The new proposal could severely damage a state’s ability to battle the current epidemic.
The Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization that brings transparency to current healthcare issues, reported that over 630,000 people enrolled in Medicaid in 2013 were battling opioid abuse, noting that these numbers were collected before Medicaid expansion began. The numbers are likely much higher now that Medicaid expansion is in effect in 31 states along with the District of Columbia. The BCRA does allocate $45 billion over the next decade for addressing opioid addiction at the state level, but experts believe this is not nearly enough in federal spending to combat what many believe is an out-of-control crisis.
It must be noted that some left-leaning media outlets report that under any version of the House and Senate’s attempts to reform the current healthcare law, about 22 million more people would be without health insurance by 2026 than would under Obamacare. By contrast, right-wing media outlets report the numbers are inflated since the Congressional Budget Office has a history of inaccurate scoring when it comes to healthcare. Whether the CBO gets it right or not, the BCRA as it’s written could result in too many people being without access to health insurance, particularly those who need more care due to opioid addiction. The country could be facing an even bigger crisis if drug addiction isn’t addressed – and soon.