Mediaplanet: Why have you made the opioid crisis a top priority for the HHS?

Sylvia Burwell: We lose too many of our fellow Americans to drug overdoses. In fact, drug overdose deaths are the leading cause of injury death in the United States—more than even car crashes—because they have increased five-fold since 1980.

This issue is one that is very close to my heart. My home state of West Virginia has the highest drug overdose death rate in the U.S., more than double the national rate.

The situation is urgent, but there are targeted actions we can take to save lives and turn these trends around. We need everyone including federal, state and local government officials, doctors, providers, drug companies and family members to work together to address this nationwide crisis. Fortunately, many are already at work because they recognize our common interest in defeating this epidemic.

MP: What action can we take to reduce opioid-related deaths?

SB: At HHS, we’ve used the best scientific evidence to focus our attention to reduce opioid and heroin related overdose, death and dependence. Our efforts focus on three promising areas: informing opioid prescribing practices, increasing the use of naloxone, a drug that reverses an opioid overdose, and using medication-assisted treatment (MAT) to move people out of opioid addiction. At the same time, it is critical to balance combating opioid misuse with supporting appropriate pain management.

MP: How can members of the general public help reduce the rising number of addictions?

SB: All medications should be kept in child safe containers and stored in a secure location to prevent access by others. Prescription medication should never be shared with others. When the problem for which the medication was prescribed is resolved any remaining medication should be safely disposed of.

"A recent HHS report indicates that of the 2.5 million people who currently need treatment for opioid use disorder, fewer than 1 million are receiving it."

Patients and families can also talk with their doctor about the risks of painkillers and other ways to manage pain. And, patients and families should adhere strictly to the prescriber’s directions for the use of any and all medications.

MP: What are some ways HHS is addressing the opioid crisis right now?

SB: Recently, we hosted a convening of representatives from all 50 states and Washington, D.C. focused on preventing opioid overdose and opioid use disorder which provided the opportunity to learn from each other and make a continued impact on this epidemic.

The President’s FY 2016 budget also includes critical investments to intensify efforts to reduce opioid misuse and abuse, including $133 million in new funding to address this issue. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is drafting suggested guidelines for prescribers to improve opioid prescribing for chronic pain. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) plays a role in combating opioid-related abuse by reviewing products and monitoring use after distribution.

FDA also encourages prescriber training by requiring some manufacturers to offer accredited training courses and continues to use its expedited review authorities to support the development of abuse-deterrent products. The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) recently announced grant awards of approximately $1.8 million to support rural communities in purchasing naloxone and training professionals in its use to reduce opioid overdose and death.

MP: What is the HHS’ stance on MAT (Medication Assisted Treatment) for those living with opioid dependence?

SB: One area of focus at HHS is to expand access to and use of this potentially life-saving, evidence-based treatment for people with opioid use disorders. MAT is a comprehensive way to address the needs of individuals that combines the use of medication with counseling and behavioral therapies to treat substance use disorders. Studies consistently show that MAT with methadone, buprenorphine, or naltrexone for the treatment of opioid use disorders is the most effective treatment option, but it remains significantly underutilized.

MP: What can we do to ensure those who need help are able to receive it?

SB: A recent HHS report indicates that of the 2.5 million people who currently need treatment for opioid use disorder, fewer than 1 million are receiving it. To help close this gap, I recently announced that HHS will engage in rulemaking related to the prescribing of buprenorphine-containing products approved by the FDA for treatment of opioid dependence. Updating the current regulation around buprenorphine is an important step to helping more people get the treatment necessary for recovery.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recently announced $11 million in grants to 11 states to increase access to MAT for opioid use disorders. In addition, HRSA recently announced a funding opportunity of $100 million to fund MAT in health centers nationwide. Funding to fight this epidemic is also critical. That’s why HHS has requested $99 million in new funding in the FY 2016 budget to support efforts across the Department.