Lawmakers have agreed to spend billions fighting the opioid epidemic this year, but where those funds will go exactly remains unclear.
Appropriators want to steer much of the $3 billion expected to go toward opioid programs for the rest of the fiscal year toward state-run treatment and prevention programs. A bipartisan group of senators wants to steer money directly to medication-assisted treatment programs, education programs meant to steer people away from drugs, and organizations that help pregnant women who've used addictive substances.
“It's not just throwing money at a problem and hope it gets better,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), one of the sponsors of a bill to add $1 billion in new funding for opioid programs, told me recently. “It's focusing on things that work.”
Congress approved more than $1.2 billion in grants to battle the opioid epidemic over the past two years and funneled another $1 billion through various government programs meant to tackle the epidemic. Portman and a group of senators introduced a follow-up bill that would greatly expand on the opioid grant program and funnel it directly to nonprofits and provider organizations.
Those who run drug treatment programs and behavioral health specialists told me there's not agreement on what approach works best. They do agree more money is needed to support medication-assisted treatment programs to battle the opioid epidemic, which contributed to the nearly 64,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016.
West Virginia, which according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had the highest rate of overdose deaths in 2016, received $10.6 million in grants to boost treatment and prevention programs.
One of the main beneficiaries of that funding, West Virginia University, is trying to expand its medication-assisted treatment program to clinics around the state, James Berry, director of Comprehensive Opioid Addiction Treatment at the Chestnut Ridge Center in Morgantown, W.Va., told me recently.
He cited success in Morgantown, with about half of those who come into the program staying in drug treatment in the short term and the majority of those remaining in treatment up to a year later.
“Addiction treatment is notorious for people dropping out, so we do what we can,” Berry said.
However, Berry is unsure whether West Virginia saw fewer overdose deaths in 2017 or if the number will drop this year. He has seen more people die using powerful synthetic opioids like fentanyl in recent years.
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