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Stephanie Pellitt

Policy and Advocacy Associate

Climbing Opioid Overdose Deaths Show Urgent Need for Treatment

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According to new data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), overdose deaths from prescription and illicit opioids increased to 33,091 in 2015. The report details the cause of overdose deaths, providing insight as to the prevalent issue areas in the nation’s addiction epidemic. For instance, the increase in 2015 was largely driven by overdose deaths involving heroin and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. Read more for a summary of the report.

The report concludes that the data clearly demonstrates the need for more responsible prescribing practices and greater access to and availability of addiction services. As CDC Director Tom Frieden explains, “We need to drastically improve both the treatment of pain and the treatment of opioid use disorders and increase the use of naloxone to reverse opioid overdose. We must also work collaboratively with our public safety partners to further reduce access to illicit opioids.”

Relevant to this report, last week, Congress passed the 21st Century Cures Act, which provides $1 billion in new funding to combat the opioid epidemic, primarily by increasing access to substance use disorder treatment. Michael Botticelli, Director of White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, said, “The Administration will work to get this new funding out to States as quickly as possible to make sure that every American who wants treatment for an opioid use disorder is able to get it.”

The $1 billion in Cures funding is the latest in a series of actions that this Congress and the Obama administration have taken to address the opioid addiction epidemic including:

  • Issuing the CDC Guidelines for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain – the Agency’s first-ever recommendations for primary care clinicians on prescribing opioids. Subsequently, more than 60 medical schools, nearly 200 nursing schools and more than 50 pharmacy schools have committed to prescriber training.
  • Increasing the patient limit from 100 to 275 for practitioners prescribing buprenorphine to treat opioid use disorders. Since August 2016, more than 2,500 practitioners have applied for and been granted waivers to prescribe at the increased limit—improving access to medication-assisted treatment (MAT).
  • Increasing funding by nearly $100 million to improve opioid prescribing, increase access to naloxone, build MAT treatment capacity to address the epidemic, and improve state surveillance efforts.
  • Establishing enhanced measures in conjunction with the Chinese government to combat the supply of fentanyl and its analogues coming to the United States.
  • Providing new funding to 271 Community Health Centers across the country to increase substance use disorder treatment services, with a specific focus on expanding medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorders in underserved communities.

Summary of 2015 Drug Overdose Data

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the number of overdose deaths involving opioids rose from 28,647 in 2014 to 33,091 in 2015.

  • Heroin overdose deaths rose from 10,574 in 2014 to 12,990 in 2015, an increase of 23 percent.
  • Overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids other than methadone rose from 5,544 in 2014 to 9,580 in 2015, an increase of 73 percent.This category of opioids is dominated by fentanyl-related overdoses, and recent research indicates the fentanyl involved in these deaths is illicitly manufactured, not from medications containing fentanyl.
  • Taken together, 19,885 Americans lost their lives in 2015 to deaths involving primarily illicit opioids: heroin, synthetic opioids other than methadone (e.g., fentanyl), or a mixture of the two.
  • Overdose deaths involving prescription opioids, excluding the category predominated by illicit fentanyl, rose only slightly from 16,941 in 2014 to 17,536 in 2015, a 4% increase.
  • NOTE: A portion of the overdose deaths involved both illicit opioids and prescription opioids.

These data are compiled from the CDC’s WONDER database: