President Seeks Increased Access to Treatment for Substance Use Disorders

New grants and drug therapies can help stem the opioid epidemic

President Obama announced a plan to combat opioid abuse© Getty Images

President Barack Obama addresses attendees at the National Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit.

President Barack Obama’s plan to increase access to effective substance abuse treatment was met with a standing ovation in Atlanta yesterday at the National Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit, where clinicians, public health officials, and law enforcement personnel gathered to discuss solutions to the nation’s epidemic of opioid abuse and overdose deaths.

Stopping the opioid abuse epidemic requires a multifaceted approach, and increasing substance use treatment is integral to those efforts. However, too few of the individuals struggling with this disease have access to such treatment. In fact, the Office of National Drug Control Policy reports that only 20 percent of all people with a substance use disorder ever receive treatment.

President Obama has made substance use treatment a priority, as evidenced by his proposed fiscal year 2017 budget, which calls for $1.1 billion to tackle this epidemic, including expanding access to such services. Yesterday’s announcement to further expand access to treatment continues to move us in the right direction. The president's plan includes $11 million in new grants to help states provide medication-assisted treatment (MAT). Studies have shown that MAT, in conjunction with behavioral therapies, is effective in helping patients. Research consistently shows that illicit opioid use is reduced an average of 40 to 70 percent with MAT compared with nondrug therapy.

In addition, the proposal calls for doubling the number of patients that a physician who prescribes buprenorphine for substance use disorder can treat, from the current 100 patients to 200 per physician. This is a welcome change. The Pew Charitable Trusts supports this effort and also supports allowing nurse practitioners and physician assistants to prescribe buprenorphine. However, this is a federal restriction that the administration cannot lift on its own.  Only Congress can make that change—and it should.  

The need is urgent.  According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 78 Americans die from opioid overdoses every day, and more people died in 2014 from prescription opioid overdoses than in any year on record. MAT can, and should, be part of the solution.

Cynthia Reilly directs Pew’s prescription drug abuse project.

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