Approximately 64,000 people died in the U.S. in 2016 from opioid overdoses—a four-fold increase from 2000. That compares with 40,000 deaths in motor vehicle accidents in 2016. Drug overdoses are the leading cause of death of Americans under age 50.
The rate of deaths from opioid overdose has increased so much that it is responsible for a 2.5-month reduction of average life expectancy for Americans between 2000 and 2015 after several years in which average life expectancy was increasing.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the states with the highest death rates from opioids are in Appalachia, New England and the Southwest.
Precise, current data on drug overdoses is not possible to obtain because of the delays by medical examiners in determining the cause of death and submitting data to the CDC. Toxicology reports often take several months to process.
Blame for the crisis
Drug companies and the insurance industries have received part of the blame for the opioid crisis. Beginning in the 1990s, drug companies increased funding for organizations and CME programs to encourage the expanded use of opioids. Spending on opioids increased by more than 40 percent between 2006 and 2010.
Insurance companies often preferred to pay for comparatively cheap drugs rather than alternate therapies and interdisciplinary pain clinics.
Murder conviction for physician
In egregious cases, a physician’s involvement in opioid abuse can lead to criminal penalties. In 2016, a California general practitioner, Hsiu-Ying “Lisa” Tseng, was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison following her conviction for second-degree murder in the deaths of three patients. She also was found guilty on more than 12 counts of illegally prescribing drugs.
One of the patients who died of an overdose of drugs prescribed by Tseng traveled more than 300 miles with friends to obtain prescriptions from the physician.
The federal government is stepping up its effort to punish over-prescription of painkillers. In 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced funding for 12 experienced Assistant United States Attorneys who, for three years, will focus exclusively on fraud issues related to opioid prescriptions.
Law enforcement officials will examine whether physicians prescribe opioids far in excess of their peers.
Federal and state governments have launched initiatives to combat abuse of opioids. Among the initiatives:
- The federal 21st Century Cures Act has provided $1 billion in funding over two years to fight opioid abuse. More than $140 million is for opioid treatment medication (particularly Naloxone/Narcan) and training of first responders; $200 million will go to community health centers
- The FDA is requiring drug companies to develop more post-market data on long-term impact of opioid use
- In August 2017, President Trump declared that opioid addiction was “a national emergency,” though the statement was not promptly followed by a formal declaration and specific emergency actions
- Approximately 20 states require physicians to check a prescription drug monitoring database before prescribing painkillers to a new patient
- Some state licensing boards require physicians to receive training on controlled substance guidelines if the physician prescribes controlled substances
State Medicaid programs provide coverage to more than 650,000 non-elderly adults with opioid addiction. The coverage is mostly likely to be available in the 32 states that expanded Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).
Jeff Atkinson is a professor for the Illinois Judicial Conference and has taught health care law at DePaul University College of Law in Chicago.