Commentary: Congress Must Act on the Growing Opioid Epidemic

Commentary: Congress Must Act on the Growing Opioid Epidemic

Our nation is in the midst of an exploding opioid epidemic. This crisis does not discriminate on the basis of a particular community or demographic. Often hiding in the shadows, the death toll is rising across the country.

Our own experience in Virginia mirrors this growing national threat. In Northern Virginia, for example, the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board reported a 22 percent increase in reported use of any opiate between 2011 and 2014. Even more troubling, heroin-related deaths increased 164 percent between 2011 and 2013.

Last week, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, on which I sit, held an important hearing on the opioid and heroin epidemic. At that hearing was Don Flattery, a Fairfax County parent whose 26-year-old son, Kevin, died from an opiate overdose after a 13-month struggle with addiction. Mr. Flattery has turned that personal loss into his life’s mission. He is a fierce advocate for those who suffer from addiction, serves on Virginia’s Task Force on Prescription Drug and Heroin Abuse, and is bringing light to this issue.

While the heroin and opioid abuse crisis is alarming, sadly the path that has led us to this tragic state is very clear. The prescription of opiates has grown drastically over the past two decades resulting in dependency, addiction, and abuse.

For example, according to the 2016 CDC Opioid Prescribing Guidelines, 20 percent of patient visits to physician offices with non-cancer pain symptoms or pain-related diagnoses receive an opioid prescription. An astounding 259 million prescriptions were written for opioid pain medication in 2012. That’s enough for every adult in the United States to have a bottle of pills.

In 2013, two-thirds of opiate-related deaths were from prescription opioids and one-third were tied to heroin usage. With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. consumes 80 percent of the world’s opioid prescriptions. Other nations use a wide variety of less risky methods to treat pain, especially for chronic pain conditions. As a country, we must be willing to reexamine the way we treat pain.

There are a number of interventions we can take to diminish opioid drug abuse such as the creation of state-run Prescription Drug Monitoring Program databases to better track prescriptions of controlled substances and the development of abuse-deterrents.

We need to better inform doctors as well as patients about the dangers of the medicines they prescribe and improve labeling. Notably the FDA just announced that immediate-release opioid painkillers such as oxycodone and fentanyl will now have to carry a "black box" warning about the risk of abuse, addiction, overdose and death. The Obama Administration has put forth a proposal, which I support, that includes $1.1 billion in new federal money to strengthen treatment and prevention strategies.

The American people are looking for Congress to engage in this fight and help stem the crisis. I joined many of my colleagues to urge the House Majority to cancel its two-week recess and immediately take action on the President’s proposal. This plan is an investment in our local communities that will save lives and keep families intact. Continued congressional inaction is not an option. Our communities, our families, can no longer wait.