It’s time for Congress to take an evidence-based and public health focused approach to the epidemic of opioid overdoses.
Opioid overdose is an epidemic in the United States. Drug overdose death rates have more than tripled since 1990, with the vast majority of these deaths attributable to an increase in the prescription and sale of opioid medications. The death rate from heroin overdose doubled between 2010 and 2012, and young people are now more likely to die from drug overdose than from motor vehicle crashes.
These statistics may be surprising, but their causes are familiar – commonly abused prescription opioid medications include names such as Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet, or codeine, as well as the illicit drug heroin, which creates similar pain-relieving effects. Prescription drugs are often considered a “gateway” to heroin use as heroin addiction often begins as a cheaper alternative to prescription painkillers.
In March 2014, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) introduced the Stop Overdose Stat (SOS) Act to create a federal plan for preventing fatal drug overdoses and prioritizing community- and state-based efforts for the development of best practices. The SOS Act would provide federal support for overdose prevention programs, which can include training bystanders, law enforcement, and first responders in recognizing signs of overdose, seeking medical assistance, or administering naloxone. Naloxone is a life-saving medication that reverses the effects of heroin or opioid prescription overdose. As of December 2014, twenty-six states and the District of Columbia have removed legal barriers to provider prescription and layperson administration of naloxone. Additionally, 20 states and the District of Columbia have established Good Samaritan protection, which grants immunity from arrest for calling 911 to seek medical assistance in the event of overdose.
The SOS Act, cosponsored by 39 legislators, approaches opioid prevention and treatment through a public health and health equity lens. While no socioeconomic or demographic group is immune to the abuse of prescription drugs or heroin (the most dramatic increases have occurred among white, middle-aged women in rural areas), urban areas with large African American populations are still where the majority of overdoses are happening. The SOS Act would create a grant program administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that gives priority to community organizations working to prevent overdose in high-risk populations.
The SOS Act would also create a mechanism for detailed reporting of overdose data for the development of best practices for preventing overdose deaths. It would require the Secretary of Health and Human Services to develop a national plan to be submitted to Congress within 180 days of enactment that incudes a public health campaign, recommendations for expanding overdose prevention programming, and recommendations for legislative action.
The bill was closed out of the 113th Congress, but should be reconsidered in the current session as the issue builds momentum in both Democratic- and Republican-led states. The re-introduction of the SOS Act is an opportunity for Congress to take immediate action in responding to a significant public health issue with a bipartisan solution. States are implementing evidence-based laws to address the worsening overdose epidemic. It is time for the federal government to follow suit.
Emily Cerciello is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Health Care, and a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.