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Congress Can Fight Opioid Addiction on Its Way Out


More than 2,500 people will die from an overdose before the new Congress convenes in January.


Much attention and speculation surrounds the incoming Trump administration and the new Congress, but it’s important to remember that the current Congress still has work to do.

Before the new Congress is sworn in on Jan. 3, more than 2,500 people will die from an opioid overdose. More than half of these preventable deaths will be due to prescription opioids such as morphine or oxycodone. Nearly 40,000 others will visit the emergency room due to misusing prescription opioids. 

To meet this urgent need for intervention, Congress must vote to fund the provisions of the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. CARA includes state grants to surge addiction treatment, while the insurance industry catches up with science and the law by eliminating pre-authorization requirements and other barriers to care, as Cigna recently did.

The Surgeon General’s report issued in November is testimony to the scale of the addiction crisis. The nation’s highest-ranking health official laid out the case for treating addiction as a disease, based largely on scientific evidence we’ve known for more than a decade. 

Acknowledging that opioid addition is a disease does not mean removing responsibility from the individual with the addiction to make the changes he needs to get better.

The Surgeon General’s report is clear: Addiction often cannot be addressed through willpower alone. It is a physiological problem that requires medical intervention. Evidence shows that when someone develops an opioid addiction, a chemical change occurs in his brain making it extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, for him to make responsible decisions in regard to the drug.

Why is it, then, that only 1 in 5 people struggling with the disease of addiction receive any kind of specialized treatment?

The pace of change has been abysmal and there continue to be great disparities in how doctors treat traditional physical diseases and diseases of the brain. The way forward is less about bridging an ideological divide than it is about discarding old, inaccurate prejudices about addiction and mental health that are not based on science. To help challenge these misperceptions and bring attention to solutions, including recovery medication, we have joined together with former Obama administration adviser Van Jones at Advocates for Opioid Recovery.

The evidence about how addiction affects the brain means that we must create a health-care environment that increases the likelihood of success for those seeking treatment. That means making treatment more available. The CARA bill is a strong step in that direction.

Our support for additional funding may surprise some of our colleagues, but this public health emergency requires immediate action. The Surgeon General’s report cited a study that found every one dollar invested in brief primary care intervention saves more than $27. A dollar spent intervening at a hospital saves over $36, or $9 in an emergency department. All of the 30 medical interventions analyzed by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy mentioned in the report—short interventions, recovery medication, behavioral counseling—had a positive return on investment by preventing future health-care costs. Through funding the CARA bill, Congress has a tremendous opportunity to make saving lives and saving money part of its legacy.

Mr. Gingrich, a former speaker of the House, and Mr. Kennedy, a former congressman, are advisers to the nonprofit Advocates for Opioid Recovery.