In the United States, heroin-related deaths increased by 39 percent between 2012 and 2013, and 37 percent of overdose deaths in 2013 involved prescription opioids. HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell states, “Approximately 2.2 million people need treatment for opioid addiction, but fewer than 1 million are receiving it.”

What is the answer?

Secretary Burwell (who grew up in West Virginia, “where the epidemic is raging”) is on a mission to close this treatment gap. Under her leadership, HHS is requesting $1.1 billion to treat opioid addiction—up from $100 million.

“‘Approximately 2.2 million people need treatment for opioid addiction, but fewer than 1 million are receiving it.’”

The vast majority of this funding will go to medication-assisted treatment (MAT), which takes a multi-faceted approach. Patients receive the drug buprenorphine, which allows them to stop taking opioids without the wrenching physical symptoms of “cold turkey” withdrawal. They also receive support to address the behavioral, economic and mental health issues that can lead to addiction.

Funding access to tools

HHS has already granted $94 million to community health centers to expand access to MAT; the agency also wants to allow certified doctors to prescribe buprenorphine to more patients, and to increase the use of naloxone, which prevents death from accidental overdose.

Burwell believes that now is the right time to dramatically increase funding because MAT is offering new hope to addicts and their families. She also notes the recent surge in bipartisan support for treatment: “There is a consensus on the steps we need to take as a nation,” says Burwell. “That’s why I’m optimistic we can make progress.”