Fighting opioid addiction must be a health care priority

By Scott Tipton

By Representative Scott Tipton

Over the last few months we have been visiting communities in the Third Congressional District to discuss the opioid abuse epidemic that is sweeping our nation and deeply impacting communities in Colorado. We recently held our fifth roundtable discussion on opioid abuse in my hometown of Cortez.

The conversations about heroin and prescription drug abuse in the communities I have visited so far have focused on the importance of targeted, age-appropriate drug abuse prevention education and community support systems, as well as the challenges that federal policies have created for health care providers when it comes to prescribing non-opioid painkillers for their patients' pain management needs. In Cortez, I heard from law enforcement and community health leaders that we must treat opioid addiction as a health care priority, rather than an issue that can be stomped out in the criminal justice system.

According to a 2012 study, almost half of all prisoners in state prison facilities abuse drugs or are drug dependent, but only approximately 10 percent of these individuals receive medically-based drug abuse treatment while they are incarcerated. The study found that inmates who are untreated or inadequately treated for drug abuse while in prison are more likely to go back to using drugs once they are released and commit crimes at a higher rate than inmates who were not drug abusers. The study also found that if just 10 percent of drug abusers were sent to community-based substance abuse treatment programs instead of prison, the criminal justice system could save $4.8 billion.

Around the table in Cortez, I heard from health care providers that many recovering opioid addicts have found success with medication-assisted treatment, like the daily use of Methadone or Buprenorphine, which are medications that reduce opioid withdrawal symptoms. Unfortunately, if someone who is participating in medication-assisted treatment returns to prison, the medication is often not available to them while they are serving their sentence. This leads to more relapses after the individuals are released.

The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), signed into law in July, includes an opioid abuse grant program that awards funds to local governments to develop, implement or expand a drug abuse treatment alternative to incarceration.

Eliminating opioid abuse in our communities won't happen overnight, but there are steps we can take to put us on the right path -- steps like treating opioid addiction like a community health issue and prioritizing treatment before prison.

The CARA is already addressing some of the challenges we have heard, but response to the opioid addiction is ongoing. It takes feedback from the local level to develop effective federal policies, especially on an issue like drug abuse, which impacts our families and our communities so deeply.