The health department just got a huge chunk of money from the federal government to support North Carolina’s opioid response. These funds are critical to support North Carolinians whose mental health has worsened during the pandemic.
Remind Me – What’s The Deal With The Opioid Crisis?
Prescription opioids, such as Vicodin, OxyContin, and Percocet, are prescribed by physicians to treat pain. Unfortunately, opioids can be extremely addictive, especially if taken in large doses or for a long period of time. For years opioid manufacturers lied to doctors and to the public about the addictive potential of their drugs. As a result, millions of Americans became addicted to the painkillers their doctors had prescribed and developed opioid-use disorders. Some people with an opioid-use disorder go on to use other opioid-like drugs such as heroin or synthetic opioids like fentanyl, which can be even more deadly.
In recent years, public health measures to combat the opioid crisis were making a real difference. From 2017-2018 the overall death rate from drug overdoses in the US fell by 4.1%. The death rate from overdoses involving prescription opioids fell by 13.5%.
New Funding Will Help Address Worsening Mental Health Trends During The Pandemic
However, since the pandemic began, the situation has gotten much worse. The stress of the virus plus the social isolation caused by shelter in place orders has led to a resurgence of substance abuse and other mental health problems. Since last year, there has been a 21% increase in opioid overdose-related emergency room visits, despite a decrease in emergency room visits overall.
New Funding Will Give North Carolina’s Opioid Response A Needed Boost
SAMHSA (the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) recently awarded North Carolina a $35 million opioid response grant.
This funding will provide life-saving treatment, recovery and prevention services for a portion of the estimated 114,000 North Carolinians that are uninsured and living with a substance use disorder – a number we know is growing in the midst of this pandemic…. While this federal funding will save lives, it will not come anywhere close to meeting the need and leaves our best tool on the table – expanding Medicaid.”DHHS Secretary Mandy K. Cohen, M.D.
North Carolina’s opioid response focuses on three pillars; prevention, harm reduction, and connecting patients to care. For example, prevention often means reducing the number of inappropriate opioid prescriptions. North Carolina’s opioid prescription rate is about 10% higher than the national average. Harm reduction includes expanding access to naloxone, the medication that can reverse opioid overdoses.
Finally, to connect patients to care, we need to make sure there are enough physicians to connect them with. Project Office-Based Opioid Treatment notes that less than 3% of NC physicians are licensed to provide medication assisted-treatment (MAT), the gold standard for treating opioid-use disorders. Most of the SAMMSA grant money will go towards providing MAT.
Read more about the uncertainty surrounding mental health and addiction treatments during COVID-19.