It’s been said many times, but it merits repeating: The U.S. is in the middle of an unprecedented drug crisis. According to a new report from the Ohio Department of Health, the number of opioid-related deaths leapt from 296 in 2003 to 2,590 in 2015 — a 775 percent increase. Those statistics are repeated from coast to coast: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that drug-overdose deaths involving heroin tripled from 8 percent in 2010 to 25 percent in 2015.
That comes with a huge price tag: In Stark County, Ohio (Canton), the drug epidemic costs $75,000 a year in toxicology tests alone. And on March 10, the Stark County coroner’s office requested a cold-storage trailer from the state to act as an overflow morgue; they got it.
Nationally, the Department of Health and Human Services estimates that in 2015, the opioid epidemic cost $55 billion in health and social services and $20 billion in emergency department and inpatient care for opioid poisonings.
Letting the epidemic go unchecked would be a disaster and could financially cripple small municipalities like Canton. Yet, as of this writing, the latest proposed health care bill ends the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that addiction services and mental health treatment be covered under Medicaid (in the 31 states that expanded the health care program). The Medicare expansion provides treatment for around 1.3 million people.
One problem is that folks don’t understand addiction as a disease. It alters body biochemistry, just like any chronic disease does. But, because they don’t understand, politicians and policy makers evaluate the effectiveness of drug treatment programs using different standards from when thinking about treating an infection or managing diabetes.
If a person is given addiction treatment and relapses, many folks blame the addict for a lack of character and willpower. But if the same person were given an antibiotic for an infection and it didn’t knock the infection out with the first round of treatment, no one would say, “You just don’t have an immune system worth helping.”
Is addiction treatment effective?
According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, like other chronic diseases, addiction can be managed successfully. “Treatment enables people to counteract addiction’s powerful disruptive effects on the brain” and help addicts regain control of their lives. NIDA also points out that, “the chronic nature of the disease means that relapsing to drug abuse is not only possible but also likely, with symptom recurrence rates similar to those for other well-characterized chronic medical illnesses — such as diabetes, hypertension and asthma — that also have both physiological and behavioral components.”
Twenty to 50 percent of Type 1 diabetes patients fail to control their diabetes at some time or another; 40 to 60 percent of those who are addicted relapse; and 50 to 70 percent of those with hypertension or asthma fail to control their disease consistently.
If someone “falls off the wagon,” that indicates treatments need to be reinstated or adjusted, or alternate treatment is needed; just like when an anti-hypertension drug fails to control high blood pressure, it indicates the need for a different medication and new lifestyle habits.
The rewards are tangible. According to NIDA: “Every dollar invested in addiction treatment programs yields a return of between $4 and $7 in reduced drug-related crime, criminal justice costs and theft. When savings related to health care are included, total savings can exceed costs by a ratio of 12 to 1. Major savings to the individual and to society also stem from fewer interpersonal conflicts; greater workplace productivity; and fewer drug-related accidents, including overdoses and deaths.” And maybe less use of morgue space has to be added to the cost savings.
So let’s not be short sighted or cruel. Addiction is a chronic disease, and our society’s continued well-being and the well-being of individual sufferers depends on unwavering support for treatment.
Mehmet Oz, M.D. is host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Mike Roizen, M.D. is Chief Wellness Officer and Chair of Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. To live your healthiest, visit www.sharecare.com.