Draft drugmakers for war on opioid abuse

The plans that the American Health Care Act has for treating opioid addiction are challenging those in the war to reduce deaths and relapses like those that afflicted thousands of Connecticut residents last year. While the Trump administration wants another $500 million nationally for addiction treatment, the act could eliminate up to nine times that amount for such care for Medicaid patients.

The political and budget skirmishes may never end, but neither will the slaughter that took 917 Connecticut lives last year — 25 percent more than 2015 — without major resources of time, skill and funding. Even with ramped-up state programs and the local collaborations that raise awareness of addiction's victims in our communities, 2016 was a losing year in terms of increased casualties.

The endangering of federal funds to treat opioid abuse does, however, signal it's time to look for more allies. Number one should be companies profiting from the sale of opioid painkillers.

The Day welcomes an effort by 10 U.S. senators, including Connecticut's two, Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, to amend the Internal Revenue code to impose a fee of 1 cent per milligram on makers and importers of active opioid drugs. The estimate is that the pennies per dose would add up to a billion dollars per year for treatment of addictions.

The American Health Care Act as written would cut $4.5 billion nationally, according to Blumenthal. Last week he told a local group working on strategies for treatment, education and advocacy that it would mean $30 million to $80 million lost for Connecticut.

The Opioid Addiction Treatment Act, nicknamed the LifeBOAT Act, includes two important exemptions. Opioids used in treatment, like Suboxone, would not be subject to the fee. The bill would require the federal Department of Health and Human Services to establish a process for rebates and discounts for cancer and hospice patients, for whose care the drugs were initially developed. Costs would likely go up moderately for others, such as post-surgical patients and their insurers.

West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III introduced the bill and got it as far as two readings by the Senate Finance Committee March 2. Whether it will go further depends on the committee. All of the bill's co-sponsors, except Independent Angus S. King Jr. of Maine, are Democrats and thus in the minority.

If the bill doesn't move forward, that will be no excuse for the drugmakers, who should have stepped forward on their own years ago. And if it does become law, they can still help voluntarily with education and advocacy efforts to head off addiction in the first place.

Treatment professionals note that opioid drugs have gotten more powerful in the past few years, as pharmaceutical companies enhance their products. More powerful, in an abuser's hands, means more deadly. An ugly problem gets even uglier when some people — presumably those lucky ones whose families haven't been touched by addiction — ask why addicts ever got themselves into their predicaments.

That's where education becomes key to the community's understanding of addiction, and advocacy can turn harsh criticism into empathy.

For two years The Day has been covering the medical, legal, social and economic costs of the opioid epidemic in its periodic series, "Deadly addiction: An ongoing crisis." We're convinced: No one can be sure it won't happen in their own circle, and everyone's support is needed to fight this war.

If drugmakers won't enlist in the fight, it's time to draft them. Support the LifeBOAT Act.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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