One of the major jobs of the Department of Health and Human Services is to promote awareness and understanding of public health threats — viruses like Zika or bird flu, defective medical devices or drugs, and the like.
Most West Virginians don’t need a reminder from Washington, D.C., about the deadliest threat to the public health of people in their state, and much of America: It’s the prescription drug and heroin epidemic that has stolen so many lives.
West Virginia has sadly been at the center of this raging epidemic. But it also has some inspiring stories to tell, which we heard when we visited Charleston last week as part of a national listening tour on this issue.
West Virginians know what it takes to beat this epidemic. The Trump administration and HHS are eager to partner with you and offer the specialized support of the federal government.
At HHS, we have outlined a five-point strategy for the opioid epidemic: promoting the targeted use of overdose-reversing drugs; boosting access to treatment and recovery services, including medication-assisted treatment; improving our understanding of the epidemic through better public health surveillance; performing cutting-edge research about pain and addiction; and advancing the practice of pain management.
On May 9, we visited first responders at a fire station on Charleston’s West Side. Emergency responders there deal with multiple overdoses regularly and carry overdose reversers on every emergency call.
It was inspiring to hear how many lives they have been able to save, but it was heartbreaking to hear how many people revived from an overdose go right back to drug use — sometimes overdosing again the very same day.
At the state Capitol, we heard from Matt Boggs, executive director of a free treatment center called Recovery Point—who was a patient at Recovery Point himself just a few years ago.
But like so many treatment facilities in West Virginia and across the country, Recovery Point has a long waiting list. Clearly, we need to find innovative ways to expand access to treatment and recovery options and connect people to those options when they most need it.
The Trump administration is committed to helping Americans struggling with this addiction get access to the right kind of treatment.
Just last month, HHS disbursed $485 million in grants to states and territories for expanding access to treatment, including medication-assisted treatment, and reducing unmet need. There is a second round of grants coming next year.
These grants are particularly focused on helping states promote best practices and evidence-based policy. But, as a physician, I also understand that does not mean we want a one-size-fits-all approach. As one young man put it to me last week, every person in recovery is as unique as his or her fingerprint.
We can learn a lot from those on the front lines, and we believe our local partners are best equipped to figure out the right treatment for the right patient at the right time.
At the same time, we don’t want to be limited to the treatment options available with today’s technology.
Just as we would with any public health threat of this scale, HHS is doing cutting-edge research on new treatments for addiction and pain management. Scientists at the National Institutes for Health are working on the possibility of a vaccine for addiction, which would block a given drug from making it into the brain.
We also know that, regardless of the treatment an individual receives, it is just one step along the path to recovery.
Our brothers and sisters struggling with addiction need support from their communities and from all of us — entering a treatment program is just the beginning of the battle.
This week, we heard one woman describe recovery from addiction this way: “If it’s taken you 10 miles to walk into the woods, you best believe it’s going to take you 10 miles to walk out.”
We are committed to walking with West Virginians, and with every American struggling to beat addiction, until every last one of us is out of the woods.
Thomas E. Price, M.D., is secretary for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.