The opioid crisis in America has been the result of a mix of misleading claims, irresponsible prescribing practices and under-regulated “pill mills.” But, with legislation aimed at limiting prescriptions and rehab centers with more resources for treatment, the crisis has slowed in recent years. As we look back on the height of it today, is the opioid crisis over? How has COVID-19 affected the outlook in 2020?
The Trends Shaping the Crisis
In the final few decades of the 20th century, pharmaceutical companies started to widely produce opioid pain medications. These drugs were marketed to the medical industry and the American public as effective and nonaddictive, despite the knowledge that these drugs were anything but safe. From around 1990 to today, there has been an upward trend in cases of opioid addiction and deaths related to these types of drugs.
In the 2010s, many of the drugmakers who brought opioid medications to the market were held accountable for their actions by way of massive lawsuits, but by then, the damage was done. Opioid-related deaths were killing more Americans per year than guns, AIDS or car accidents.
The second half of the 2010s saw a significant number of bills signed into law aimed at limiting the availability of opioid pain medications. In 2017, the federal Department of Health and Human Services declared the crisis a public health emergency and announced a concrete strategy — as well as a significant boost in financial investment — to help fight the spread of opioid addiction.
Local, state and federal organizations took action. Overprescribing practices were limited by legislation across the country, and many states enacted tougher penalties on doctors operating so-called “pill mills” — offices where pain pill prescriptions were essentially given to anyone who asked.
Empowering Better Treatment
Laws aimed at reducing the availability of these drugs definitely had an impact, but so did a better-regulated treatment community. In 2017, notable crackdowns on fraudulent rehab centers across the country allowed the industry to undergo a reform.
The Obama administration’s landmark health care bill, the Affordable Care Act, also helped, giving more people insurance benefits that allowed them to pay for addiction treatment services on a more consistent basis. As a result, treatment facilities like FHE Health were able to fill a significant need, providing experienced, versatile and clinically proven addiction treatment to parts of the country where quality care was desperately needed.
It seems like new laws across the country and an increase in options for quality care have contributed to an impact on the ongoing concern. Between 2017 and 2019, overdose deaths related to prescription opioids decreased year over year. With this in mind, though, is the opioid crisis over? The answer is no, and some trends in the face of a new public health crisis are cause for significant concern.
The COVID-19 Pandemic and the Opioid Crisis
Despite the marginal gains made over the past few years, it would be foolish to say that the American opioid crisis is over. The uncertain times that have accompanied the novel coronavirus outbreak (COVID-19) have threatened to bring the opioid crisis to a new level:
According to an American Medical Association (AMA) release updated in June 2020, at least 30 states have reported upticks in the number of opioid-related deaths in the first half of the year. As the result, federal agencies have loosened regulations on prescriptions of methadone and buprenorphine, two medications that are effective in helping people struggling with addiction to opiates reach recovery.
An example cited in the release is DuPage County, Illinois, where in 2019, the total number of overdose deaths was 96. According to Richard Jorgensen, MD, the county coroner, there were 22 deaths in a mere three weeks in early May 2020. According to Dr. Jorgensen, “That’s a marked increase … we do not know if this is due to a change in the makeup of the drugs, drug usage on the streets or due to current COVID-19-related changes in society.”
Why COVID-19 May Be Causing the Increase
Dr. Jorgensen continued, saying that he has heard troubling reports from local treatment centers: “They said we were echoing what they had seen, and they were seeing increasing problems with people they had treated relapsing or reaching out to their sponsors.”
We know recovery is a lifelong battle and that it is never easy, whether someone has been sober for one month or 20 years. This suggests that some environmental factors related to COVID-19 could be causing people to abuse these drugs. Here are a few possibilities:
Reduced Access to Resources
Many treatment centers have reacted to the spread of the pandemic by offering virtual services, telehealth IOP and other solutions that keep patients and staff safe while allowing those in need to access critical care. But for some, this may not be as effective as face-to-face counseling, and for those who aren’t given access to these resources, it may be easier to fall back on old habits and unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Increased Stress and Family Trauma
While May and June 2020 saw states loosen restrictions on businesses and personal travel outside the home, many Americans spent March and April in varying degrees of quarantine. Combined with added stress about health, idle time and family tension, it seems likely that conditions were favorable for an increase in drug use and abuse.
COVID-19 has also caused a recession as nationwide business closures shut down the economy and forced many Americans from their jobs. This means that financial sources of stress will continue to grow for many households, which is another predictive factor of drug use.
Outlook for the Future: Is the Opioid Crisis Over?
Not by far, but it’s important to take steps to continue the marginal gains made between 2017 and 2019. Unfortunately, we don’t know what the future holds for COVID-19, and it’s even less certain for the opioid crisis. Presumably, the pandemic will be under control in the foreseeable future, but addiction is a chronic disease. When COVID-19 is gone, new cases of opioid addiction won’t be without access to quality care and evidence-based addiction treatment.
That’s why experienced addiction treatment facilities like FHE Health have a critical role to play providing support during COVID-19. If you or someone you know is struggling with opioid crisis at any time, but especially now, don’t hesitate to reach out to FHE Health and learn about the range of treatment options available in these difficult times.