- Katie Wedell Staff Writer
Fighting the opioid epidemic is an urgent priority for the federal government, according to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, with billions of dollars being poured into expanding access to proven treatments and researching alternative pain medicines.
One day after the White House’s opioid summit, Azar visited the Miami Valley for a listening session with those fighting the drug epidemic locally.
During a round-table at Brigid’s Path, an inpatient care facility in Kettering for newborns suffering from prenatal drug exposure, Azar got to hear from Congressman Mike Turner, R-Dayton, Montgomery County Juvenile Court Judge Anthony Capizzi, children services representatives and local families and children who have been affected by opioid addiction.
“America needs to hear these stories,” Azar said. “These voices help inform everything that we do at the federal level.”
As HHS secretary, Azar oversees the FDA, the CDC, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the National Institutes of Health, all agencies that are working together to reduce overdose deaths and improve health outcomes for Americans, he said.
During the summit and Friday’s meeting in Kettering, he’s been struck by the ongoing nature of the struggle faced by those with substance abuse disorder, Azar said.
At the recent National Governors Association’s winter meeting, Azar touted medication-assisted treatment as crucial for stemming the opioid epidemic. And MAT is not a short-term solution, he said.
“Individuals may end up being on medical assisted treatment long after they are in a residential program or an outpatient program,” Azar said. “Indeed they might be on medical assisted treatment for the duration of their life.”
Currently only about one-third of substance abuse treatment programs nationwide offer MAT, he said.
“That’s something that I’m hopeful through the $13 billion historic package that we’re putting out of funding to the states and local governments, that additional medical assisted treatment will become available,” he said.
Of the $13 billion the White House says it will ask Congress for over two years for opioid prevention, treatment and long-term recovery, $3 billion would be used to double targeted grants to states for addiction treatment in 2019, Azar said.
He also highlighted $750 million being spent for the NIH and private partners to research alternative ways to treat pain without opioids. The FDA is working on streamlined processes to get those treatments tested, approved and on the market more quickly.
Brigid’s Path’s Executive Director Jill Kingston thanked Azar for listening to their concerns, especially about seeking the ability to bill Medicaid for their services.
“It would sustain Brigid’s Path and we’d be able to help more babies,” Kingston said.
Turner is a co-sponsor on a bill called the Caring Recovery for Infants and Babies(CRIB) Act, which has a companion bill in the Senate co-sponsored by Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Rob Portman, R-Ohio. It would allow residential pediatric recovery centers like Brigid’s Path to be recognized providers under Medicaid.
Turner is also sponsoring the The Reforming and Expanding Access to Treatment (TREAT) Act in the House which would allow Medicaid coverage for addiction treatment to inmates in jails and prisons. Currently individuals lose their Medicaid coverage when they become incarcerated.
“They can come back out without having had treatment, and they’re going to of course, go back to the addiction,” Turner said.
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In visiting the Dayton region, which is has been particularly hard hit by overdose deaths and the collateral damage of opioid use, Azar said he wants to let Ohioans know they are not alone.
“Your president is with you,” he said. “Donald Trump is firmly committed… He is taking it personally and incredibly seriously.”