Opioid addiction in the US

The Treatment Gap: A Look at Why So Many People Aren’t Getting Help for Opioid Addiction in the US

Last year marked another landmark year for opioid fatalities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that over 50,000 people died from opioid addiction in the US in 2016, accounting for an overwhelming majority of the over 64,000 total drug-related fatalities. Since 2014, the United States has seen record-setting rates of drug overdoses, despite increased efforts from all stakeholders, including the treatment community, legislators and law enforcement alike. As more and more awareness is being raised toward this pervasive public health crisis, and more and more Americans are seeking help for heroin addiction, the glaring disparity between those who need treatment, but simply aren’t getting is coming under increased scrutiny.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that of the over 21 million Americans that currently struggle with a substance use disorder (SUD), only a fraction receive the treatment they need. Part of preserving the lives of those affected by opioid addiction in the US is identifying and remedying the roadblocks that get in the way of treatment. The opioid crisis has completely obliterated stereotypes related to addiction and substance abuse, and there are many different barriers that keep this diverse population of addicts from receiving quality care and taking the necessary steps to move forward in their lives.

Stigma and Shame of Addiction in the US

According to the CDC, almost two million Americans abused or were dependent on prescription opioids in 2014. As many as 25 percent of people who receive prescription opioids long term for non-cancer pain in primary care settings struggles with addiction. This accounts for a large swath of Americans, who simply don’t fit the typical addiction stereotype: housewives, senior citizens, upper-middle class suburbanites, etc. Many of these users cling to the deeply held stigma that addiction is a moral failing and that they’ve somehow become less of a person because they became dependent on these highly addictive pills. Many insist they can stop using on their own, and wind up spiraling into an endless cycle of relapse and withdrawal.

Opening the Dialogue

Creating an honest dialogue about the widespread nature of opioid addiction in the US and making sure all users understand that it’s OK to ask for help will aid considerably in eliminating the toxic judgment and perception associated with this legitimate medical illness. Unfortunately, this may mean thousands more will die before we fully understand just how pervasive this public health issue is. Creating a heightened awareness must begin at all levels from the legislative chambers in Washington, DC to the everyday neighbor in Smalltown, USA. We can’t be afraid of these types of problems or seek treatment for them.

Lack of Treatment Resources

It’s also an unfortunate reality that opioid addiction in the US has simply outpaced our ability to effectively treat it. Between prescription painkillers like OxyContin, Vicodin or Lortab and illicit substances like pure heroin, thousands of Americans are finding themselves in need of effective treatment with essentially nowhere to turn. States all over the country, from New Jersey to Florida to Texas are facing a critical lack of treatment beds as their populations of opioid addicts explode in numbers. The problem is particularly impacting the mentally ill, a significant percentage of whom are suffering with a co-occurring substance abuse issue.

Insurance Roadblocks

Although the Affordable Care Act was supposed to increase treatment access to what are called Essential Health Benefits, including substance abuse and mental illness, patients are still having a hard getting the care they need for simultaneous addiction and behavioral disorder. Many insurance companies are still reluctant to cover certain types of inpatient treatment, so patients who require more in-depth care often face an uphill administrative battle. Impending rollbacks to the ACA may make coverage even harder to come by. While it may seem difficult to find coverage for substance abuse treatment, most providers do wind up working with their customers to find an equitable solution. It’s not uncommon, however, for patients to get discouraged by the back-and-forth and quit seeking help of any kind.

The Way Forward: Facilitating Treatment for Opioid Addiction

It is important that we recognize that drug addiction treatment is a time-sensitive matter that must be addressed immediately as any snag in the process can result in patients giving up on the process. Increasing treatment resources, opening up a dialogue and making sure patients know that they’re not alone are some of the first steps toward reclaiming some of the lives that are threatened by opioid addiction in the US. As more and more Americans are rendered vulnerable to these drugs, understanding all aspects of prevention and treatment is a key component of mitigating mortality and preserving overall quality of life.