Painful Statistics: CARA provides tools to fight opioid addiction

Opioid medication addiction kills more than 120 people in the U.S. each day. In addition, opioid abuse causes people to suffer other medical problems, lose jobs and relationships and turn to crime to pay for their addictions. Opioids, powerful drugs usually prescribed to treat severe pain, include illegal drugs, such as heroin, and prescription medications, such as Percocet, morphine and codeine. Opioid addiction entails physical and psychological dependency on the drug.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) claims that 116 million Americans suffer from chronic pain. Opioid drugs, which treat severe pain that may not respond well to other medications, work by binding to opioid receptors in the brain, spinal cord and other areas of the body. They reduce the sending of pain messages to the brain and reduce feelings of pain.

About 5 percent of people who take prescription pain relievers as directed over the period of a year develop an addiction disorder. The Journal of Medical Regulation calls prescription drug abuse the fastest growing drug problem in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that opioids played a role in about two-thirds of all the 47,055 drug-overdose deaths in 2014, and 18,893 of the deaths were associated with prescription opioids. Additionally, drug overdose deaths from heroin and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and tramadol have been on the rise.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), 61 percent of drug overdose deaths involved a prescription or illicit opioid in 2014. The Centers of Disease Control (CDC) determined that Florida’s opioid overdose death rate decreased 27 percent between 2012 and 2014 after the state implemented policies such as a pill mill law and prescription drug monitoring program. While addiction is treatable, and scientific advances in drug abuse treatment have made great strides, only 10 percent of those who need treatment receive it.

Last summer, the federal government enacted the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) to fight opioid addiction. Its mission, according to Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), one of its authors, is to “initiate a comprehensive response that includes prevention, law enforcement strategies, addressing overdoses, expansion of evidence-based treatment, and support for those in, or seeking, recovery.”  

Providing $181 million per year for a “comprehensive response to the heroin and opioid epidemic,” the law treats addiction like a disease, provides education and prevention efforts, offers recovery programs, expands overdose reversal and helps law enforcement agencies to divert people to treatment centers. It enables nurses and physician assistants to give people medication to overcome addiction and forces physicians who treat veterans to cross-check their opioid history with prescription drug monitoring programs.

Today the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is supporting more than 30 studies to prevent chronic pain. Other NIH studies include tracking the opioid epidemic, understanding pain and opioid addiction, studying new treatments to reverse overdoses, improving clinical practice and evaluating policies.

While some advocates say that the sweeping federal reforms are not comprehensive enough, they represent a crucial policy shift that recognizes addiction as a disease rather than a law enforcement problem. Hopefully, these reforms can reverse the current trends and make more treatment options available.

Ilene Schneider is the owner of Schneider the Writer (www.schneiderthewriter.com), a firm that provides communications for health care, high technology and service enterprises. She has edited or written for numerous technical publications, as well as serving as a publicist for various medical, biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies.