Strategies for the opioid crisis

NICK EICHER, HOST: From member-supported WORLD Radio, this is The World and Everything in It for Tuesday, March 27th. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.

Behind the opioid crisis lay ruined lives and devastated families. Cries for help are being answered in the public and private realms.

But most public funding to combat opioid addiction goes for maintenance drugs. That, instead of long term residential recovery programs. Congress just allocated another $4.6 billion in the spending bill President Trump signed into law on Friday.

WORLD Magazine’s Emily Belz has reported this story and she’s here now to talk about it. Emily, is the opioid crisis as bad as we hear?

EMILY BELZ, REPORTER: It is. It’s actually getting worse. So, we just got new numbers from the CDC and it showed that the overdose numbers are up 30-percent over last year. We thought that we had reached the peak, but unfortunately we haven’t. So I’ve been covering this crisis for a few years and looking at different responses to it, I just was wondering what is the government doing and what is successful and what isn’t successful, and so that’s why we started looking into these maintenance drugs.

REICHARD: What has been the strategy so far?

BELZ: Well, most of the money – as you said – is going to maintenance drugs… to methadone as people more popularly know that drug and also suboxone, which is also known as buprenorphine. And those — buprenorphine is getting a lot more funding than methadone, so we wanted to look into some of the more potential problems with bupe — also known as suboxone and then also, ya know, talk to some of these long-term residential programs and see what responses they’ve been getting from the government. And some of the ones that I talked to, they’ve tried to get funding and they’ve been turned away. So I think we’re seeing in places like Staten Island where I went to report on this story, they have the highest rate of deaths in New York. But they aren’t getting funding for residential programs. They’re getting — most of New York’s money is going to bupe, also known as suboxone, and methadone. So there’s a real disconnect here in terms of a long-term commitment to recovery for drug addicts.

REICHARD: Well, you mentioned the maintenance drug suboxone. What are some of the drawbacks of that drug?

BELZ: Well, suboxone is an opioid. It’s supposed to be less addictive and it’s a little safer because it has something to counteract overdoses. But it can be addicting. It’s a prescription, so, you know, somebody can go home with it and then potentially sell it on the street. There are doctors who are abusing it in terms of, ya know, becoming pill mills and prescribing it to make cash. The New York Times did a really good investigation on that. And there are some risks associated with the drug. It is safer than doing heroin on the street, but it has led to overdoses in some cases. There’s actually a family right now that’s suing suboxone for the death of their son. He was coming off of suboxone and overdosed on another drug, but that’s often the common theme is that people think that these pills magically solve a problem, but it’s still an addiction underneath all of that. So there’s some longer term work and counseling that needs to happen alongside these drugs.

REICHARD: I assume suboxone isn’t all bad, though, or it wouldn’t be used?

BELZ: Right, right. I talked to some Christian doctors who work in addiction recovery and they said that Christian recovery groups can often be too dismissive of suboxone. They’ll require complete abstinence from any drugs to be in their recovery programs. That’s the case of all the recovery programs here in New York that are Christian. But these doctors are saying, you know, it just needs to be administered the right way. It needs to be part of a holistic treatment that includes counseling, long-term community-based recovery. But that drugs — maintenance drugs like suboxone can be a part of it. So we wanted to thread that needle of not dismissing it too quickly, but also recognizing its risks.

REICHARD: So much work to do. And of course many more details in your piece in the current issue of WORLD magazine.Emily Belz is a WORLD reporter based in New York. Thanks for this report, Emily.

BELZ: Thanks for having me, Mary.

(AP Photo/Patrick Sison, File) This Aug. 15, 2017 file photo shows an arrangement of pills of the opioid oxycodone-acetaminophen in New York. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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