40 million Americans struggle with addiction, but many don’t get the treatment they need.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Overdoses are the #1 cause of accidental death in our country. According to the CDC, there were over 107,000 fatal overdoses in the U.S. in 2021. That’s the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a single year. Overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, psychostimulants such as methamphetamine, and cocaine all increased between 2020 and 2021.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, this tragedy has gotten worse. In some communities, overdose-related emergency calls are up as much as 40% and 42 states reported increases in overdose deaths during the pandemic.
And it’s not just overdoses taking lives: In 2018, more than 175,000 deaths in the U.S. were related to alcohol and other drugs. That makes substance use the third largest cause of death in the nation.
Only 1 in 10 people who need treatment ever receive it, and even fewer receive high-quality care that’s rooted in scientific evidence. Medications are one of the most effective treatments we have for substance use disorder but many cannot get them. 60% of residential treatment facilities don’t offer addiction medication and only 1% offer all three types of medications.
Even though addiction is an illness, treatment has long existed outside of mainstream medicine. In a survey of physicians and nurse practitioners, only one in four said they’d received addiction training during medical education.
Treatment for addiction isn’t one size fits all. But health insurance coverage often limits patients’ options. In many states, Medicaid does not cover residential treatment. Only 60% of employer-sponsored health plans cover addiction medications. And extra hoop-jumping like prior authorization requirements delay and limit access to lifesaving care.
In fact, overdoses are rising more quickly among communities of color. The annual growth rate from 2018 to 2020 for Black individuals (16.1%) and Latinx individuals (12.6%) well surpassed the rate of white individuals during the same period (3.8%). What's more, overdoses among Native Americans are above the national average, and the rate continues to grow.
Access to treatment dramatically favors white individuals, who are 35 times more likely to receive a prescription for buprenorphine, a medication for addiction treatment shown to increase the odds of successful, long-term recovery.
Black people are more likely to experience negative legal outcomes for drug offenses. Approximately 14% of the US population is Black – and they use substances at similar rates as other populations – but they represent 29% of arrests for drug offenses and 33% of people incarcerated for drug offenses.
Addiction is the only medical illness that’s criminalized, but punishment does not reduce drug use or overdoses.
Approximately 137,000 people are in state prisons or jails in the United States on any given day for drug possession, often for possessing small quantities of illegal drugs. And penalties are doled out inequitably: Racial and ethnic minorities, especially Black and Latinx Americans, are significantly more likely to be arrested and receive stronger sentences for drug-related offenses.
More than half of those in state prisons and two-thirds of people awaiting sentencing in jail exhibit problematic substance use, or meet the criteria for addiction. What’s more, while people with substance use disorders serve jail time, they have incredibly limited access to evidence-based treatments.
Addiction costs our country more than $740 billion each year. And the costs keep rising. We’re hemorrhaging money on this crisis, and all that spending is not doing much to protect our loved ones.
With the science we have today, we could save countless lives — and spend a fraction of that amount —by increasing access to addiction treatment with an approach that’s compassionate, evidence-based, and rooted in public health.
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