The Columbus Dispatch

Painkiller­s killed my friend, but we can win opioid war

- Your Turn Chris Christie Guest columnist

My best friend from law school had it all. Ivy League graduate. Editor of law review. First to become partner. Happily married with three wonderful daughters. He could overcome any challenge.

Except one: painkiller­s.

A back injury from running translated to an Rx that ultimately killed him. He lost everything: his wife, home, license to practice, the right to see his children, and his life. He died alone at 52 with an empty pill bottle at his side.

Every two and a half weeks, the loss of life from opioids is equal to the number of people lost on 9/11. Yes, you read that right.

More people have died from substance abuse than COVID.

In fact, Americans consume 85% of all the opioids in the world. Every community and family will be affected by this scourge in some way. While COVID overwhelme­d our health care system, the opioid crisis continued to grow in the shadows, destroying everything in its path.

Where is the outcry? The marching in the streets? Now is the time to act.

The foundation for an effective solution has been built. The strategic bipartisan recommenda­tions contained in the report Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis in 2017 illuminate a path forward.

Everyone should be able to access evidence-based treatment. It shouldn’t matter where you call home, or if you have one. Your insurance coverage, benefits and how far you live from a city must no longer define the length or quality of your life.

Bureaucrac­y, department­al silos, and red tape must no longer be tolerated as reasons for delay in taking action. Lives are being lost every day. One challenge before was that funding was not available, but now $50 billion in court-approved settlement funds are here.

What’s missing? Leadership. Leadership to put these commission recommenda­tions to work. State and local government­s are starting to step up, and they must focus on the best use of these funds for practical, timely solutions that will affect real change.

How can we fight the war against opioid addiction?

We must leverage the lessons of the past three years coupled with the commission’s findings and recommenda­tions.

Let’s lean on data, educate the community, empower providers, implement practical programs, and save lives. It is past time to connect existing resources to those who desperatel­y need care, many of whom will die if they don’t receive help.

This war can be fought with the right tools: effective medical education, changes in prescribin­g practices, making substance use disorder treatment more accessible, and a whole of government approach with strong regulatory and enforcemen­t actions.

The recommenda­tions of the commission are grounded in this reality. They benefit from modern systematic epidemiolo­gical and large data analytics, evidence-based treatments, and effective medication­s.

We have the know-how, but we must choose to deploy it: leverage real-time data analytics to identify the most vulnerable population­s. Use hyperlocal data to reveal hot spots to deliver treatment. Focus interventi­ons on the areas of greatest need.

Public-private partnershi­ps can help implement and operationa­lize low-cost programs with proven return on investment­s in our communitie­s at scale.

We saw the positive impact when the private sector stepped up to support public health leaders to rapidly create and deploy streamline­d, effective care delivery in the pandemic, changing the trajectory of COVID care in numerous states.

We can do it again. We can reverse the rising tide of overdose deaths, but this disease requires a coordinate­d, comprehens­ive attack. It is our responsibi­lity to work together to defeat the opioid epidemic.

Lives, livelihood­s, and economies are at stake. Like COVID, this insidious disease is tenacious, and its tentacles will find its way into every community, if not every home, unless we take action now.

Let’s keep hope for the millions fighting addiction. We can overcome this crisis. We can win the war against opioids.

Chris Christie served as the 55th governor of New Jersey from 2010 to 2018. He was also the chairman of the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis.

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