When there’s the political will, there tends to be a political way to accomplish the impossible. It appears this finally may be the case with the nation’s long-ignored epidemic of heroin and prescription opioid addiction.
On Tuesday, the Obama administration unveiled a plan to ramp up spending on drug treatment and prevention, which is woefully inadequate in most states, and to expand patient access to the overdose-reversal drug, naloxone, and to other drugs proven to curb addiction.
Nationwide, about 2.2 million people need treatment for opioid abuse, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, but about only 1 million manage to get it.
To change this, the president intends to ask Congress for a fiscal year investment of $1.1 billion over two years – a budget request that, in normal times, would be an exercise in futility. But this is a politically charged election year that’s anything but normal.
The New Hampshire primary is coming up, and New Hampshire is a state that has been particularly ravaged by drugs. It has one of the highest rates of fatal opioid overdoses in the country.
That means a whole lot of voters in New Hampshire want to talk about drug addiction. They want to know what the men and women running for president can do to help. They want to know what those in Congress can do about it, too – and for good reason.
More Americans die from drug overdoses now than from car crashes. In 2014, that was about 47,000 people. Most took opioid painkillers prescribed by a doctor; many others died from heroin, the cheaper alternative.
New Hampshire may have the dubious distinction of being the poster child for this epidemic, but the same drugs have taken hold of communities across the country, including thousands of rural and suburban enclaves in California.
The number of drug overdoses recently hit a new high here, with about 4,500 Californians dying in 2014 compared with about 1,500 in 2002 – again, the vast majority from opioids. More than twice as many Californians die from drug overdoses than are murdered.
For this reason, because of the pressure from voters and the timing of the election, the Obama administration could get a lot of what it wants from Congress to combat opioid addiction.
If not, lawmakers may go to one of the other bipartisan solutions on the table. Among them is a bill from Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, called the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. It’s set to go before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.
One could lament that the Obama administration and Congress are acting now more because it’s politically expedient than because it’s the right thing to do for millions of Americans. While that’s obviously true and while it’s a shame, in the end, we don’t really care.
More than the politics of why, what matters is that we’re facing an emergency with this seemingly unstoppable epidemic of lethal drug addiction. What matters is that something gets done.