Why the Opioid Epidemic Is Getting Worse Instead of Better

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(Newswire.net — June 1, 2018) — For the last several years, the United States has been going through an opioid epidemic of unprecedented proportions. As of March 2018, more than 115 people in the U.S. alone die after overdosing on opioids (which include a variety of substances, including prescription pain medications, heroin, and fentanyl). The economic burden of the phenomenon is estimated to be $78.5 billion every year, and there’s evidence that the epidemic has been growing since the late 1990s, when prescription opioid medications became more popular.

With this significant economic impact and tragic loss of life, you might think that politicians, organizations, and professionals would be working tirelessly to make things better. But the reality is, the opioid epidemic is getting worse, not better—between July 2016 and September 2017, the number of overdose admissions rose by 30 percent.

So why is this the case?

The Precipitating Factors

Let’s take a look at some of the complicating factors here:

  • Early recognition. Part of the problem is that people don’t seek treatment until it’s nearly too late. Though it’s possible to spot the signs of heroin addiction early in a person’s history, most people don’t seek or recommend treatment until someone is unresponsive or in dire straits. That sharply increases the number of ER visits, and makes it more difficult to curb addiction when it exists at a manageable level.
  • Insurance companies. One of the biggest roots of the opioid problem is prescription opioid medication, which has been overprescribed for decades. There are many possible alternative treatments for people suffering from chronic pain, including local injection therapy and physiotherapy, but most insurance companies are unwilling to cover or recommend these alternatives, since prescription medication is still cheaper.
  • Fentanyl and other synthetic drugs. It’s estimated that the total number of people addicted to opioids is stable, but the types of drugs available are becoming stronger. Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids are many times more powerful than standard opioids, which makes it much easier to overdose on—and much more addictive.
  • Underage use. The number of children admitted to hospitals for opioid overdoes has more than doubled between 2004 and today. Because of the prevalence of opioid medications in parents’ homes, children are both intentionally and accidentally taking them more often. This is problematic in the short-term, because it’s directly increasing the number of overdoses now, and in the long-term, because it creates the substance dependence much earlier in a person’s life.
  • Lack of funding. There are thousands of companies and nonprofit organizations that understand the severity of the crisis and want to help, providing treatment for drug overdoses as well as rehabilitation and therapy for people addicted to opioids. The problem is, medications, therapies, and professionals’ time are all expensive—and there just isn’t enough funding to meet demand.
  • Lack of follow-up treatment. When someone who has overdosed is treated, they’re usually admitted to a hospital and kept for long enough to get them functional. Once they’ve gotten through the earliest stages of recovery, they’re returned to their homes. The problem here is that the underlying addiction is still there, and has gone untreated; the addict may have escaped death, but they’re still physically dependent on the substance, so they’ll be likely to use it again in the future, possibly leading to a fatal overdose.
  • Lack of legislation. Though both the House and the Senate have been discussing the importance of managing the opioid crisis in the future, neither has proposed extensive legislation that could adequately manage the crisis. We’re entirely dependent on doctors, insurance companies, hospitals, and organizations making the “right” choices to control the epidemic—and if not bound by law, they may likely continue making the fast, easy, or cheap choices for each individual, providing even more fuel to the crisis.

What We’re Doing

The Trump Administration has formally declared the opioid crisis to be a national emergency, and there are millions of people willing to support relief of the epidemic, but the reality is, there isn’t enough funding to provide treatment for everyone in need. This is a complex epidemic, so until we have an equally complex and multifaceted way to address it, it will likely continue to grow.