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Opioid epidemic is deadliest ever

Southwest public affairs officer for the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services

Our nation faces its deadliest drug epidemic ever.

For years, Americans overestimated the benefits of opioids and underestimated the risks. Many people became regular users of these narcotic pain killers, often quite innocently, with a prescription from a doctor after surgery or an injury or as treatment for a chronic condition. Few thought their growing dependence on the pain killers would lead to addiction.

The numbers describe the magnitude of the crisis now confronting us:
• Since 1999, the amount of prescription opioids sold in this country has nearly quadrupled.
• Also since then, deaths from prescription opioids have more than quadrupled.
• Every day, 91 Americans die from an opioid overdose.

Older adults are especially affected. About 2.7 million Americans 50 or older abused pain killers in 2015 when they took them for reasons or in amounts beyond what their doctors prescribed. Also, people 65 and older have had sharp increases in opioid-related hospital stays and emergency room visits.

No one is suggesting that someone undergoing surgery, recovering from an injury or having major medical problems should be denied pain medications. But 236 million prescriptions were written for opioids last year in this country ñ enough to give every American adult a bottle of pain killers.

Combating the opioid epidemic has become a major federal priority. The Department of Health and Human Services is following a five-pronged strategy of stepping up public health monitoring of the problem, supporting research on pain and addiction, improving access to treatment, making overdose-reversing drugs more available, and promoting better ways to manage pain.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published guidelines in 2016 for clinicians prescribing opioids for chronic pain outside of active cancer treatment, palliative care and end-of-life care. The federal government is also providing states with nearly a half-billion dollars for prevention and treatment programs. Another half-billion dollars in grants will follow next year.

As important as the federal partnerships with states and communities will be in addressing this nationwide menace, stemming the increase in opioid-related deaths will demand the attention of all of us. That means not just government officials and health care professionals. It means anyone who may be needing some form of pain medication, as well as family members and friends.

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