WASHINGTON – State and local health experts Thursday stressed the need for more doctors and other health care providers, especially in rural areas, to combat the opioid epidemic at a Senate hearing.
State health department directors, behavioral science professors and local health coordinators told the Senate Appropriations health subcommittee that more research, funding and workers are needed to address the crisis.
“We are woefully short in personnel in rural regions,” said Dr. James Berry, director of addiction services and a professor at West Virginia University.
“Trying to reach people in rural communities is the challenge,” said Dr. Karen Cropsey, a psychiatry professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “We don’t have as many programs as we need.”
As of 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of deaths from opioid overdoses in rural communities had surpassed those in more urban areas, and, as Cropsey said, that number is predicted to rise in the next few years.
“Addiction is a treatable condition,” Berry said, but only 20 percent of those who need treatment in West Virginia receive it.
Berry said doctors in his state provide buprenorphine, an opiod, to addicts to keep them in treatment because so few are willing to undergo the withdrawal process.
“We realized pretty quickly that if we weren’t offering buprenorphine, people weren’t staying alive,” Berry said.
Beth Tanzman, executive director of Vermont Blueprint for Health, echoed the need for more resources at the state level.
“There is not enough treatment capacity to meet the demand brought on by this epidemic,” Tanzman said. “We have not solved this crisis.”
Subcommittee chairman Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., concurred: “It’s clear that the crisis is not behind us.”
But Tanzman said Vermont has begun to implement solutions to treat those suffering from addiction, including a strategy called medication-assisted treatment, which combines medicine with therapy and counseling sessions.
According to Tanzman, Vermont has the lowest opioid overdose death rate in New England as a result of the program.
President Donald Trump in October signed into law a package of bills designed to combat the crisis that reauthorized $500 million in existing funding and created grants and research programs, although many in the health industry say the bill did not go far enough.
The health experts made clear how important the federal funds are when Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., asked what would happen if the funds were cut.
“We would go back to the days when people just died,” Cropsey said.