For more than 25 years, I’ve worked to address the drug addiction epidemic that has affected so many lives across Ohio. Over the last several years, I have been encouraged by the progress we have made in fighting this disease, especially with regard to opioids like heroin and prescription painkillers. In 2017, Ohio’s opioid overdose death rate was almost three times the national average, with nearly a dozen Ohioans dying from these dangerous drugs every day, surpassing car crashes as our state’s number one killer. In 2018, that began to change. Ohio became one of the leaders in turning the tide with a 22 percent decrease in overdose deaths, as drug overdose deaths declined nationwide for the first time since 1990.
We achieved these strides thanks in part to legislation like the 21st Century CURES Act and the Comprehensive Addiction & Recovery Act (CARA) I authored to provide state and local government and nonprofit groups with additional resources for proven prevention, treatment and recovery programs. These laws have also ensured that our first responders on the front lines of this crisis have the resources, including the miracle drug naloxone, to help stop overdoses. This kind of sustained federal support has been critical to helping communities provide the type of services that are leading to progress in combating this disease.
But troubling new data are beginning to emerge detailing how, due to the unprecedented challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, overdoses are increasing in Ohio and across the country. We are in danger of taking a big step backwards in our work to turn the tide of addiction.
Many individuals have lost their jobs or have had to radically change the way they work. The isolation, stress, and uncertainty of this period have led some people to turn to drug use, and the results have been tragic.
The Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program, a collaborative organization that tracks overdose data from more than 3,300 emergency agencies, has monitored the rising rates of overdoses this year. According to data obtained by the Washington Post, fatal and non-fatal overdoses were 18 percent higher in March of this year than March of 2019, 29 percent higher this April, and 42 percent higher this May.
This has become a serious problem in Ohio. In Hamilton County, there were 42 overdose deaths in May, and at least 23 more in June. In Cuyahoga County, the Medical Examiner’s Office have reported 235 fatal drug overdoses so far in 2020, and at least 66 in May alone. Those figures match the deadliest month for overdoses on record in the county back in February of 2017. Meanwhile, the Columbus coroner’s office has had to move to a space three times larger than its old office to accommodate the increase in overdoses there.
Adding to this problem is the fact that many patients and caregivers who relied on face-to-face interaction and round-the-clock care to stay the course on the road to recovery have been unable to meet in person for addiction treatment services. Ultimately, we must to find a way to get a handle on this coronavirus pandemic so that we can resume these traditional, in-person addiction treatment services that have helped so many recover from this debilitating disease. In the interim, however, I have worked in Congress to expand telehealth and delivery options for opioid treatment. They have been helpful in offering a lifeline to patients, and in some instances, have even allowed addiction specialists to reach new patients. However, these reforms are temporary only.
While in-person care is preferable, the benefits of telehealth for treating addiction are real, and we must act now to make these policies permanent so that providers can have the flexibility to continue to offer telehealth options when this pandemic is over.
Recently, I introduced bipartisan legislation to do just that called the Telehealth Response for E-Prescribing Addiction Treatment Services (TREATS) Act. The bill will bolster and make permanent telehealth options for addiction treatment services by allowing doctors to prescribe low abuse-risk drugs that are used for treating substance use disorder to patients while still preventing fraud. The bill would also pave the way to bill for audio-only, or telephone, telehealth visits if it’s not a patient’s first visit, expanding access to those who may not be able to make video calls.
There is no question that the greatest priority facing our country at this moment is the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic. But these new data show that Congress must ensure that our addiction health services have the resources they need to adapt to this new reality, which is why I believe it is urgent we pass the TREATS Act. Doing so will help us preserve the progress we have made in combating the addiction crisis and ensure that more Americans can reach their God-given potential.
Rob Portman (R-Ohio) represents the state in the U.S. Senate.