You know that a health issue reaches the tipping point of public and policymaker concern when it prompts a national summit. We’ve seen them for avian flu and infectious diseases, obesity, gun violence…and now prescription pain killer and opiate abuse. Last week, President Obama and key officials from government health agencies, Congress, as well as the business, academic, and provider communities came together to discuss solutions to an opiate crisis that, in the president’s words, is “affecting everybody – young, old, men, women, children, rural, urban, suburban…” and which has the ability to devastate our communities as dramatically as terrorism and natural disasters.
These summits are a great idea in that they bring together leaders from a variety of sectors to address problems that demand truly multi-disciplinary approaches and interventions. “It takes a village” is the idea. They also continue to shine a national spotlight – the president noted last week that where he goes “usually the cameras do, too” – on challenges to which the nation as a whole needs to pay greater attention. Finally, they are an opportunity to roll out and publicize new initiatives designed to better meet the unique demands of the problem being considered.
If any issue in the last several years meets these criteria – and warrants a turning point in unified, effective, and compassionate public policy – it is the current opiate epidemic and the well documented link between prescription opioid and heroin abuse. Deaths linked to opioids soared to more than 29,000 in 2014, the highest number on record. Yet, President Obama, in his remarks to about 2,000 attendees as part of a panel discussion with a recovering opiate addict and a physician on the front lines of treatment, suggested that “the public doesn’t fully appreciate yet the scope of the problem.”
In addition to relaying some of his own experiences with youthful drug experimentation, and expressing gratitude that addiction “didn’t get its claws in me” (except for nicotine, Obama is an ex-smoker), the President noted that the landscape today is much different. When “it’s cheaper to get heroin on the street than it is to try to figure out how to refill that prescription, then you have a problem,” the president said.
Obama’s appearance at the summit follows the Senate’s passage of an expansive bill which puts in place new, sweeping measures to battle opioid abuse through everything from increased access to Medication Assisted Treatment for addicts, to education and training for doctors, to increases in funding for treatment. As he spoke in Atlanta last week, the White House announced even newer actions to better combat a problem that, in Obama’s words, demands an all-hands approach.
Refreshingly, for those in the treatment provider community much of the President’s push focused on the need for increased funding for treatment, especially as it relates to individuals falling into lower income brackets who may be dependent on Medicaid to receive help. “It’s not enough just to provide a structure for more treatment, there has to be actual funding for the treatment,” Obama argued.
While the President was undoubtedly the headliner of the Atlanta event last week, weeklong sessions featured everyone from the Surgeon General to congressional leadership to the heads of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Medical Association. And workshops and presentations did address the complex and multi-faceted nature of the problem, ranging from a presentation on how the CDC is using social media for prescription abuse awareness, to a session on the investigation and prosecution of pill mills, and even a discussion of how to responsibly treat newly returning veterans with chronic pain.
The final characteristic of all of these public health summits is that they underscore a common, harsh reality – namely, that more remains to be done to fix the problem in question. In the case of the opiate epidemic, the Atlanta summit was clearly a good start, but the proof in the pudding will be how well that “more that remains” actually gets done. We’ll be eager to see…