The opioid epidemic has been an increasing global issue since the late 1990s. In 2017, opioid overdoses took the lives of 47,000 people. That same year, roughly 1.7 million people in the U.S. struggled with substance abuse disorders stemming from prescription opioids.
Tragically, this issue is only becoming worse as it goes unaddressed. Presently, more than 130 people die from an opioid overdose every day.
Last year, the Trump administration passed legislation that provided more than $3.3 billion in funding for the opioid crisis. Potentially as a result of the funding, drug overdoses fell by roughly 5 percent last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Protection.
Continuing this momentum into 2020, the Trump administration decided to ramp up funding last week, announcing it would be awarding $1.8 billion in grants to states and communities.
Arizona was one of 47 states in the nation to obtain a chunk of that funding, receiving $17 million in federal funding over the next three years.
“In the past 20 years, we’ve seen on a national level the use of opioids for non-illicit purposes, so primarily for pain management, grow exponentially, and in Arizona, it’s hit us particularly hard,” said Health System Alliance of Arizona executive director Jennifer Carusetta. “And so, over the last couple years, the health care community has really come together under the leadership of the governor and legislature and our agency partners in the Department of Health Services and AHCCCS to figure out what is the best fit strategy that us as health providers can take?”
Carusetta explains that because opioids are generally prescribed drugs, the issue is much more challenging to combat. Frequently, drug abuse disorders will start with a prescription following an injury or surgery; after the mismanagement of drug prescriptions and consequential patient dependencies, abuse becomes rampant.
In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that between 21 and 29 percent of patients with an opioid prescription for chronic pain misuse them. As a consequence, between eight and 12 percent of patients develop an opioid abuse disorder.
“Because it’s not an illegal drug, it’s been very difficult for us to wrap our arms around the scope of the problem,” Carusetta said. “Because of course just because somebody has a prescription to an opioid, that does not mean that they have a problem, that they’re addicted, or that they’re taking that drug improperly. So, it’s just much more complicated of an issue than what we’ve seen in other parts of combating the drug problem.”
Arizona’s Department of Health Services will have $5.7 million per year for the next three years at its disposal to invest in resources and programs that mitigate the abuse of opioids.
“One of the main focuses of this grant is to support local communities in addressing the opioid overdose crisis at the local level,” said Arizona Department of Health Services assistant director Sheila Sjolander. “We will be able to provide funding to 11 county health departments, so they’ll be working on local strategies for their own communities… They were asked to provide us some information about what they had intended to do with the funding and has given us budgets when we first applied back in May. The CDC had kind of a menu of strategies from which the counties could choose.”
For example, county health departments might work with local hospitals to improve the referral process to help people get the treatment they need, Sjolander said. The Department of Health Services will also continue funding the opioid assistance and referral line, which operates 24/7 for both healthcare providers and the public who might have questions about opioids and/or treatment options.
The Department of Health Services also has resources on its website for employers to develop optimal policies and practices that combat opioid abuse. These tools help companies of all sizes and industries be part of the solution to this rapidly growing issue.