U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price was in Quincy earlier this month to hear from Adams County officials who are witnessing firsthand the often-deadly consequence of opioid addiction and to assure them that curbing the epidemic is one of the top priorities of President Donald Trump's administration.
Trump's drug commission, led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, recently called on him to declare a national emergency to deal with the opioid crisis. An initial report from the commission says the approximately 142 deaths each day from drug overdoses mean the death toll is "equal to September 11th every three weeks."
The president pledged last week to follow through on that recommendation. "The opioid crisis is an emergency. And I am saying officially right now: It is an emergency, it's a national emergency. We're going to spend a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of money on the opioid crisis."
Clearly, it will be a difficult fight.
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that more than 183,000 people have died from an overdose of prescription drugs in the past 16 years. Drug overdose remains the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S. with more than 52,000 alone in 2015, and it is the leading cause of death for Americans under age 50.
In addition, the CDC has reported that while overdose of traditional opioids has dropped slightly, fatal overdoses involving heroin has tripled.
Adams County has seen firsthand the impact of opioid addiction and heroin use. Price pointed out that Adams County experienced a nearly 360 percent increase in emergency department visit rates related to opioid and heroin overdose, and a 300 percent rise in the overdose mortality rates due to opioids and heroin between 2010-15.
Furthermore, Adams County EMS officials report that they saw four times the number of heroin overdoses in the summer of 2015 alone, with emergency first responders doubling the stock of on-hand Narcan to combat the high rate of overdose calls.
While Adams has been one of the hardest-hit counties in Illinois, the problem is just as acute in Northeast Missouri and Southeast Iowa.
Price outlined a strategy to combat the epidemic during his Quincy visit. He said it's important, among other things, to identify ways to prevent and treat addiction, expand the availability of overdose-reversing drugs and decrease the availability of opioids by identifying non-addictive medical treatments.
New York Newsday reports that Trump's commission has suggested increasing the availability of treatment with medication, currently offered in only 10 percent of programs, and changing federal Medicaid rules to allow reimbursement to facilities with more than 16 beds.
However, the newspaper also reports health care plans in the House and Senate would cut Medicaid by at least $600 billion a year, which would curtail addiction treatment, and current budget proposals would cut money for treatment, prevention and research.
When Congress returns next month, it will be imperative that lawmakers work in concert with local and state medical and law enforcement professionals to develop a road map and provide funding to successfully attack this epidemic.
This is a public health challenge the nation cannot afford to lose.