Three Ways HHS Secretary Burwell Can Prevent Loss of Life to Overdose

This morning, wedged between the final Supreme Court announcements of the year and the 4th of July holiday, a dedicated group of 40 advocates from across the country will be walking the halls of Congress calling for greater federal response to the opioid overdose epidemic. Parents, public health advocates, individuals in recovery, and others dedicated to preventing opioid overdose deaths will be urging their elected officials to support boosting the federal government’s investment in proven-effective strategies to address the nation’s current opioid epidemic.

Each day an estimated 68 people die from opioid (prescription and heroin) overdose; 476 people a week; 25,000 lives lost every year. One of those individuals was Laura Hope Laws, who in 2013 died at age 17 from overdose. Laura’s father, David, has traveled from Georgia to be on Capitol Hill today to tell his family’s story so no other parent should have to experience what he has. David explains, “In our story, our daughter made a mistake and it proved to be fatal. But her life was not a mistake … where there is life, there’s hope [and] if we can help give anyone a second chance to become a person in long-term recovery and have a purposeful life [we should].”

Last month, I wrote Three Things the Surgeon General Should be Telling Every American About Overdose– but the US Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) role and responsibility to help prevent overdose goes beyond the U.S. Surgeon General: It rests with the leadership of HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell.

Earlier this year, the Secretary announced a new initiative on opioids consisting of three key areas of focus: “Opioid prescribing practices to reduce opioid use disorders and overdose; the expanded use of naloxone, used to treat opioid overdoses; and expanded use of Medication-assisted Treatment (MAT) to reduce opioid use disorders and overdose.” While the platform certainly includes many key elements and holds great promise, overdose prevention advocates tell me it falls short in three key areas:

First, Secretary Burwell should direct the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to make available resources – financial and human – to the nearly 40 states, which are leading the nation in responding to the opioid epidemic by expanding the use of naloxone. Red states and blue states alike are innovating and legislating with respect to policies and programs focused on preventing opioid overdose deaths with naloxone. Yet, these states need more extensive guidance and technical assistance as they scramble to implement new, much-needed efforts to combat opioid overdose. Federal resources and expertise – particularly from the CDC – are urgently needed now. Secretary Burwell should ensure that states are supported in their efforts to protect their citizens, families, and communities from the devastation of overdose. She should do so without delay.

Second, naloxone is a proven-effective FDA approved opioid overdose rescue medication, which if deployed in a timely manner can reverse the potentially fatal respiratory depression caused by an overdose of opioids. Last week, the effectiveness of arming laypeople – parents, friends, roommates, and people who use drugs themselves – with naloxone was reported in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Yet, the federal government has no dedicated effort focused on the purchase and distribution of naloxone to individuals most likely to witness an overdose. Secretary Burwell should immediately create a naloxone opioid overdose rescue fund, through which federal funding specifically is targeted to support the purchase and distribution of naloxone in communities most in need. In addition to layperson access, recipients of the federally funded naloxone should include first responders (e.g., fire, police, EMTs) and others at the community level, such as local public health departments. However, the priority should be on getting naloxone into the hands of the people proven most effective at reversing an overdose in the timeliest fashion: the people who use drugs themselves and their loved ones.

Third, too many people remain unaware of the power of naloxone and what to do if they encounter someone who has overdosed. The lack of national awareness about the signs and symptoms of overdose and what to do in response are contributing to the senseless loss of life. Secretary Burwell – along with the Surgeon General – and Members of Congress, Governors, and other leaders – must dedicate time, attention, and resources to educating the public about how to respond to an overdose and how to help someone with opioid dependency. The messages are simple and the information is quite easy to relay– the challenge is reaching all Americans. Secretary Burwell has the voice, resources, and authority – she just need deploy them – now.

The forty overdose prevention advocates visiting Congress today are bringing passion, expertise, and poignancy to the cause and the effort. Yet, they cannot reach all 535 Members of Congress or millions of Americans; Secretary Burwell, you can. The lives of 68 people every day hang in the balance.

Ilisa Halpern Paul is President of the District Policy Group, a boutique health policy and government relations consulting practice within Drinker Biddle & Reath, LLP.

Morning Consult