No one disputes that opioid addiction is a problem in need of varied solutions, as each person struggling is a story all his or her own. The opioid abuse epidemic has been a runaway freight train, barreling out of control through communities and lives, without much conversation as to why the tracks were built in the first place and at what speed and with what precautions we need to take the journey.
Even as society appropriately grapples with how to address addiction and over use, it’s important to keep in mind that the drugs themselves are vital for people who need them. People like Michael’s mother-in-law, who until her recent death, lived eight years with cancer, enduring several surgeries and sometimes in great pain.
When the modern day angels of hospice joined the family support team in her last days, “comfort care” was the primary goal. For people with chronic pain, recovering post-surgery, or suffering from cancer, these drugs have made what once was an agonizing event more bearable. And that’s important to remember.
For those dealing with cancer, the second leading cause of death after heart disease, proper use of opioids can allow a quality of life not experienced by any of our ancestors.
Jeff’s father also died from cancer, enduring brain cancer surgeries with the help of opioids, and he also was able to pass away at home because of the comfort the drugs provided. As time passes, many of us will sit by similar bedsides, feeling helpless, wishing more could be done. That’s not an argument for irresponsible use of opioids, but we need to keep in mind that they are sometimes the right choice for patients.
Still, having worked in health-care-related fields, we know that safeguards need to be in place. We need new thinking on the opioid crisis because the death toll is so high. More than 72,000 people died from drug overdoes last year, with about 50,000 of those attributed to opioids. The scope is so intense all hands are needed on deck, from prestigious universities to detox programs in jails and communities to the FDA in approving medications to facilitate withdrawal, to retailers paying attention to the volume of drugs sold.
It’s the medical professionals – doctors, nurses, pharmacists – who are in the best position to limit and direct long-term use, to choose alternatives to the drugs for some patients and to recognize the signs of distress.
Patients who are suffering don’t have the experience or the training to navigate all the downsides to a drug that can help in the short term. It’s reported that 116 peoplea day lose their lives to opioid addiction, while many others are struggling to distance themselves from the solution that became their biggest problem. The National Institutes of Health notes that about 5 percent of those who take opioids as directed for more than a year can develop an addiction disorder.
In March, Congress provided $4.7 billion to assist those struggling with the opioid crisis, including $1 billion for grants to states, and now Congress is making an investment in comprehensive programming. The Department of Health and Human Services has an opioid help page to direct people to resources and assistance to deal with the fallout of misused drugs. And recently, in a moment of rare bipartisan agreement, the Senate passed by 98-1 the Opioid Crisis Response Act of 2018 following a 393-8 vote in the House as members of both parties took seriously the problem of opioid abuse and addiction – all good things and necessary to address the chaos of addiction.
But let’s not demonize these drugs or belittle the need of those who do depend on them, when properly utilized.
Some diseases, some injuries, and some events require the kind of relief found in opioids. They are not a one-size-fits-all treatment. But for some of the sickest among us, the drugs provide respite from conditions that have plagued mankind through the centuries.
Jeff Oldham and Michael Hamrick are partners at Acuity Strategic Partners, a Washington D.C.-based public affairs firm. This piece reflects their personal stories and is not advocacy on behalf of a current client.