By Bill Bailey
OxyContin was a safer form of narcotic painkiller when it was introduced in 1996. Its time-release properties meant patients wouldn’t need to take as often of a dose. It was a sensible and reliable choice for both acute and chronic pain. It wasn’t highly addictive.
Of course, none of this is true.
Regardless, Purdue Pharma — the makers of OxyContin — marketed and targeted doctors and patients at unprecedented levels.
In addition to handing out “patient starter coupons” for free 7- to 30-day supplies, and targeting primary care physicians, Purdue “trained its sales representatives to carry the message that the risk of addiction was ‘less than one percent’,” according to research published in the American Journal for Public Health in 2009.
Now, more than 20 years after Purdue Pharma introduced their “new and improved” opioid — the pharmaceutical giant has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The move is an attempt to shield the corporation and its owners from more than 2,600 federal and state lawsuits tied to Purdue’s involvement in igniting the opioid epidemic.
And while Purdue is paying a high price for misrepresenting the risk of addiction, the impact of its actions on our country is staggering. Millions of lives have been damaged by addiction.
Currently, there are more deaths from drug overdoses each year than there were during the entire Vietnam War. From 1999 to 2017, the number of annual drug overdose deaths in the United States skyrocketed from nearly 17,000 to more than 72,000, according to data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Two-thirds of these cases are from opioids.
Unfortunately, by the time it became clear how addictive these medications are, it was too late. In 2017, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services officially declared a national public health emergency and implemented a five-point plan to tackle the epidemic.
Agencies and lawmakers at the state and federal levels have been actively working to reduce and prevent opioid misuse nationwide ever since. It appears that government intervention is effective. Provisional data recently released from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics suggests the number of annual drug overdoses finally fell after ballooning for decades, from 72,000 in 2017 to 68,500 in 2018 – approximately 5 percent.
Now that we’re seeing just how much misinformation was allowed to be disseminated, and how it lured so many Americans into the throes of addiction, it’s imperative that we support policies and programs that protect Americans from this epidemic in the future.
While the opioid epidemic is not unique to Texas, understanding the specific reasons certain individuals and communities continue to be vulnerable to addiction, how they gain access to illicit drugs, and if patients and providers know the warning signs of addiction and available resources for recovery, is key to controlling the problem — locally.
Cenikor Foundation, a leader in providing quality behavioral health care services through a continuum of care for adults and adolescents, is doing its part to thwart the crisis by conducting research in Texas’ rural areas under a Health Resources & Services Administration Rural Opioid Response Program. On a national level, we know that drug overdose deaths in rural areas surpass rates in urban areas; with Cenikor’s help we will soon be able to evaluate the unique challenges specific to our rural Texas communities. By partnering with the Texas Rural Health Consortium, Cenikor is assessing the needs related to prevention, treatment and recovery in Bosque and Hill Counties – extremely rural, underserved areas where addressing the opioid crisis is more challenging.
Knowing what we know now, prevention is only half the battle. Many organizations like Cenikor focus on another aspect of the picture – addiction treatment, which is vital to restoring the lives that have already been damaged. In rural communities, access is often the problem. We are working to fill that void. In Texas, we want to empower local providers to not only limit opioid prescriptions but recommend treatment facilities when the first red flags arise, and get to a place where no patient feels alone in his or her battle.
In 2019 so far, 1,351 clients have been admitted to Cenikor for opioid abuse. Education, treatment, and recovery will prevent more Texans from succumbing to the deadly perils of addiction.
This is a national problem playing out on a personal level. It is critical that we not only hold instigators responsible for their part in this epidemic, but collectively support individual healing. Whether you or someone you love is searching for detoxification, shorter-term residential or outpatient services, and whether you are insured, uninsured or under-insured, there is someone out there who can help. For every unique situation, there is a door to successful recovery.
Bill Bailey has served as president and CEO of Cenikor Foundation since 2004.