The federal government declared the opioid crisis a national emergency, which will make more resources available for states and federal agencies to combat what is being called the deadliest drug epidemic in U.S. history.
But what does this mean? How did things get bad enough to warrant the same treatment as a natural disaster or terrorist attack?
We talked to professors from varying disciplines and specialties at the university to shed some light on what makes the opioid crisis a national emergency. All are affiliated with the university’s Youth Substance Misuse and Addiction Pop-Up Institute. Their range of backgrounds reflects how complicated the issue is.
"There is no 'silver bullet' to solve this problem; a comprehensive, integrated solution is required." – Lori Holleran Steiker
“There is no ‘silver bullet’ to solve this problem; a comprehensive, integrated solution is required,” said Lori Holleran Steiker, the organizer of the pop-up institute. “Researchers have thus far invariably worked in silos, attacking only a narrow piece of the problem and often competing with each other for resources.”
Holleran Steiker, a professor in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work, researches models for youth substance misuse prevention, intervention and recovery. She said a major reason for launching the pop-up institute was to bring together those who study and those who implement research-based practices from a wide variety of fields.
The pop-up institute is one of several such institutes at the university created as part of a UT Austin Vice President for Research initiative to bolster support for interdisciplinary teams of researchers, providing resources and space for researchers from across campus to combine their unique perspectives in pursuit of a common goal.
A National Emergency
Holleran Steiker said that, from a social work perspective, the opioid crisis is a national emergency based on the sheer loss of life alone. In fact, according to the Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, the number of Americans dying every day is equivalent to September 11th every three weeks.
America is enduring a death toll equal to September 11th every three weeks, according to the Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis.
That comparison is significant – Sept. 11 is one of the 28 current active national emergencies in the U.S., many of which are in response to terrorism, instability around the globe and natural disasters.
A declaration of a national emergency gives a president some additional powers, such as waiving regulations to expedite response to a crisis.
When President Barack Obama declared an outbreak of H1N1 swine flu a national emergency in 2009, for example, it allowed for the waiving of Medicaid and Medicare regulations so that hospitals could treat people with infectious illnesses offsite.
“The primary benefit of declaring a national emergency would be to attract attention and promote coordination between federal agencies." – Lucas Hill
Lucas Hill, a professor in the College of Pharmacy who is the principal investigator with co-principal investigator Holleran Steiker on the Texas Targeted Opioid Response: Overdose Prevention Project, said he supports the idea of declaring anational emergency because of the number of lives impacted.
“Given how many more Americans die each year due to drug overdoses compared to terrorism and natural disasters, it is logical that the opioid crisis would warrant such a declaration,” Hill said.
Hill directs Operation Naloxone, which trains students and community members to use overdose reversal drugs such as Narcan to respond to overdoses. He says there’s another compelling reason to declare a national emergency.
“The primary benefit of declaring a national emergency would be to attract attention and promote coordination between federal agencies,” Hill said.
The President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis recommended in its interim report that the president declare a national emergency. The reasoning they provide for this recommendation is that it would “awaken every American to this simple fact: if this scourge has not found you or your family yet, without bold action by everyone, it soon will.”
“Addiction is a life-threatening illness that warrants a massive, swift response. Ideally we want help to be as easy to access as the drug itself.” – Lori Holleran Steiker
Nile Barnes, a practicing clinical pharmacist and professor in the College of Pharmacy, said increasing awareness is particularly important when it comes to the opioid epidemic because of the need to change perceptions.
“Convincing people who have no exposure to substance use disorders that these are diseases is one of the biggest challenges,” Barnes said.
Holleran Steiker said that societal stigma contributed to the current crisis, saying efforts to address the problem of opioid addiction have not received much funding in the past because of stereotypes about drug users. She said a declaration of national emergency could help further efforts to humanize addiction and increase awareness of help available.
“The data alone warrants a declaration of a national emergency, but I never want us to forget that it is about people – our mothers, fathers, children and neighbors are dying,” Holleran Steiker said. “Addiction is a life-threatening illness that warrants a massive, swift response. Ideally we want help to be as easy to access as the drug itself.”
Working Together to Reduce Barriers to Treatment
Barnes, who serves on the Texas Drug Utilization Review Board, which recommends criteria for drug prescribing within the Texas Medicaid program, said it’s important to train and educate a wide variety of health care professionals to combat the crisis, because changing how physicians prescribe medication to treat pain is only one piece of the puzzle.
“As a pharmacist-educator, I can teach both patients and health care providers how to properly use all the drugs at our disposal to treat acute, chronic and malignant pain,” Barnes said. “But patients also need physical therapists to teach good biomechanics to help injuries heal. They need social workers to help find appropriate resources for their substance use disorder. They need nurses and psychologists. They need all of us to work together.”
“Convincing people who have no exposure to substance use disorders that these are diseases is one of the biggest challenges,” – Nile Barnes