Governors, Physicians Call For End To Nation’s Opioid Epidemic

Joint statement by National Governors Association (NGA) Health and Human Services Committee Chair Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker; Vice Chair New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan; American Medical Association (AMA) Chair-Elect Patrice A. Harris, MD, MA

Governors and physicians find it unacceptable that nearly 30,000 Americans die each year from the misuse and abuse of prescription opioids and heroin. To end this national epidemic that claims the lives of so many of our family members and fellow citizens, governors, physicians, state legislatures and other stakeholders must join together to take action.

We agree that physicians who prescribe opioids and other controlled substances benefit greatly when they use prescription drug monitoring programs. These databases—when effectively funded, maintained and integrated into everyday practice—are a powerful tool to identify potential signs of opioid abuse, enhance patient care, improve prescribing practices and signal when a patient may need treatment for a substance use disorder.

We agree that education about effective pain management, substance use disorder and related areas should begin in medical school and continue throughout a physician’s career. That means physicians who prescribe opioids and other controlled substances must be sure they have the most up-to-date training and education to prescribe and administer those substances safely and effectively. It is imperative we provide care for patients in pain. However, prescribing medications excessively or “just in case” is not acceptable and continues to fuel this growing epidemic. Guidelines are an important tool to prevent over-prescribing and identify the signs of addiction while meeting the needs of patients in pain. We must also ensure patient satisfaction surveys and accreditation standards are not contributing to the problem by encouraging unnecessary opioid prescribing.

We must prioritize treatment for substance use disorder, a medical disease that needs our care and compassion. Millions of Americans need help overcoming this disease, but the challenge lies in closing the treatment gap. That gap exists because of a lack of resources combined with too few physicians trained to provide medication-assisted treatment. Removing federal barriers to buprenorphine would go a long way toward closing that gap.  The epidemic will continue to rage unless we expand our treatment systems and address the stigma that prevents so many individuals and families from seeking help.

In addition, we must continue to promote overdose prevention and education efforts. That includes increasing access to naloxone to reverse overdoses and save lives, as well as co-prescribing naloxone to those at risk of overdose. Prescribers have primary responsibility for ensuring patients understand that misuse of opioids can result in addiction, overdose and death.

It is time to put an end to this epidemic’s hold on our country. Many states have already taken steps, and many physicians and medical societies have partnered in those efforts. But collectively, we must do more. We must demonstrate the leadership it takes to make meaningful changes that will have a lasting impact. Not only is it our job, as governors and physicians, but also our responsibility to the American people.