Time to double down on opioid fight

Washington, October 29, 2018 Contact:
This opinion piece originally appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer. You can read it here.

Congress recently passed one of the most significant pieces of legislation against a single drug crisis in the history of our country. It is now headed to the president's desk to be signed into law.

This latest, bipartisan effort in the battle against our national opioid epidemic, called the SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act (H.R. 6), is a comprehensive package of bills targeted towards advancing treatment and recovery initiatives, improving addiction prevention, protecting our communities and bolstering efforts to fight deadly illicit synthetic drugs such as fentanyl.

This isn’t the beginning of efforts to battle the ongoing opioid crisis, and it certainly is not the end either. It cannot be. Ninety-one Americans die every day from an opioid overdose, more than 64,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2016 and more than 1,000 Americans are treated in emergency departments each day for abusing opioids.

Last year, hundreds of Ohioans shared their personal experiences with the opioid epidemic with me. Stories poured in, and I was able to share a few of them in testimony in front of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. One was from a mother of four boys, three of whom are struggling with opioid addiction.

"I’m going broke trying to get my children sober," she wrote.

Another was caring for her daughter’s 18-month-old son while she was away in rehab for her heroin addiction.

"I am terrified that she won’t live to see 30 and that her son will never know the sweet and caring person she ... when not high," she said.

This has become a sad reality recently, so much so that The Enquirer called overdoses the new "normal." At least 180 overdoses, 18 overdose deaths and 15 babies born with heroin-related medical problems were reported in our Southern Ohio counties in just one week. We must keep fighting to try to ensure this new "normal" stops with our current generation.

We continue to search for and identify answers. We’re all searching for answers – and we are finding some of the best ones at the local levels. As one of our local sheriffs always says, "We cannot incarcerate our way out of this." We also can’t spend our way out of it. We can’t even always treat our way out of this crisis.

Instead, we must continue to take targeted, multi-pronged approaches towards untangling the vast web of factors that make up this complex issue – holistically addressing the source of these drugs, root causes of addiction, treatment and life and work opportunities post-rehab. Perhaps most importantly, we need to build a long-term vision for prevention, so we can help our fellow citizens avoid getting into this situation at all.

This year’s historic federal efforts are an important tool in our toolkit, but much of the ongoing focus will rely on local and state efforts. Part of this includes keeping media attention and government engagement honed in on the issue. The Enquirer played a role in this with their powerful, attention-grabbing reporting that conducted an in-depth examination of what the crisis looks like in our communities. That reporting won a Pulitzer Prize.

We have many community leaders here in Ohio who are at the forefront of pushing for solutions. One example is a county sheriff who runs a preventive after-school program at a local church that teaches young Ohioans about the dangers of drugs and opioids, while also providing a safe environment to keep children engaged and off the streets. He also runs a "Dangers of Opiates" essay contest, asking local students to write down their thoughts about the risks of opioids and explain how they hope to become the generation to stop the epidemic.

Nehemiah Manufacturing Company based in Cincinnati has shown the positive impact businesses can create. Their mission is to bring manufacturing jobs back to the inner city of Cincinnati and provide opportunities for employment to local workers who need a second chance – whether they have struggled with addiction, have no work history, or have a record. Having these opportunities to contribute, provide for their families and create a future is critical to any holistic, long-term solutions.

A holistic effort also includes increased federal and local partnerships, like the bipartisan Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), passed in 2016, which includes grants to implement comprehensive community-wide strategies that address local drug crises. This year, Drug Free Cincinnati was awarded a $50,000 grant under CARA. After President Trump declared opioid abuse to be a national health emergency, the 2018 budget bill authorized the largest investment to date to address the opioid epidemic and fulfill the President's Opioid Initiative.

We need both these historic federal investments and the community-focused initiatives. We have bipartisan partnerships. We have creative solutions and holistic approaches. We need constant and consistent effort. Together, we must look to each collective step forward, not as a checked box or a reason to shift focus, but rather wind in our sails as we double down in the fight for solutions and save American lives.