The opioid epidemic is now a full-blown national crisis, yet the federal government continues to dawdle. President Donald Trump declared opioid addiction a public health emergency, and he talks a tough game. But he has not taken forceful action. If he will not lead, Congress must — and now, before the crisis grows even worse.
Opioid overdose deaths rose 28 percent in 2016, to 42,000 men, women and children. Some 2.6 million more Americans are addicted to opioids, and communities in every region of the country are suffering from the resulting trauma. Largely as a result, life expectancy declined in 2016 for a second straight year — something that has not happened since the early 1960s.
This is a solvable problem, and through philanthropy we can make some progress. But real success requires much bolder leadership — and a far greater sense of urgency — from both elected officials and industry leaders.
We must stop doctors from over-prescribing opioids, especially when non-addictive pain medications (such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen) would be just as effective. Steps have been taken to educate doctors and to curtail prescriptions for opioids (such as Oxycontin, Percocet and Vicodin), and the prescription rate has fallen from its peak in 2010. But it remains three times what it was in 1999 — and four times what it is in Europe.
More aggressive action is needed. The Food and Drug Administration should allow only doctors who complete specialized education in pain management to prescribe opioids for more than a few days, a move FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb is considering. Some states have limited the size of certain opioid prescriptions — all should do so. To avoid the need for bans or other draconian measures, which would harm people suffering the most severe chronic pain (including many who are terminally ill), the medical profession must do more to rein in prescriptions and create effective monitoring programs.
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