Editorial: Apply lessons from AIDS epidemic to opioid crisis

  • In this July 24, 2017, photo, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks in a park in Berryville, Va., where Congressional Democrats unveiled their new agenda. Warren and Democratic U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland have proposed using $100 billion in federal funding over the next 10 years to help communities battle the opioid crisis. AP FILE PHOTO

Published: 4/25/2018 8:48:30 PM

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren draws a sobering analogy between the federal government’s approach to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and its handling of the current opioid addiction crisis.

In both instances, people were stigmatized and blamed for their disease, the federal government under-invested in basic research and treatment and lawmakers initially lacked the courage to confront the crisis, the Massachusetts Democratic senator noted.

The stigma of a “gay” disease eventually gave way to science and led to increasingly effective treatments that meant contracting AIDS was no longer a death sentence. Even now, The Kaiser Family Foundation has found that the U.S. is spending more than $7 billion annually on discretionary domestic funding on AIDS, an epidemic with a death toll that peaked in 1995 at 43,000.

Today, by contrast, a spending plan signed by President Donald Trump commits the federal government to spend $4.6 billion this year to fight the opioid crisis, which killed 42,000 Americans in 2016. That’s a record amount to spend on the cause, but still way too little.

Advocates like Warren contend that the current level of federal funding isn’t enough to create the kind of treatment system needed to reverse the addiction crisis that is ravaging cities and towns across the nation. A White House report last fall said the overdose epidemic costs the country more than $500 billion a year.

Warren is right to say the time is long overdue to invest billions to reverse our losses — financial losses yes, but more importantly the loss of life through overdose deaths, and the destruction of the lives of survivors in the thrall of addiction or in the constant state of vigilance in recovery.

Warren and Democratic U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland have proposed using $100 billion in federal funding over the next 10 years to help communities battle the crisis that claims tens of thousands of lives each year. That’s about double what the federal government has committed so far, but still falls short of what we should be throwing at this fight.

Warren said the goal is to make sure funding goes directly to the hardest-hit counties where the most people are dying from drug overdoses. The bill also would ensure a portion of the money goes directly from the federal government to clinics and nonprofits pioneering new models of treatment. We think that’s especially important if we are to get ahead of this epidemic.

The crisis has been decades in the making, but the response of the federal government hasn’t kept pace.

“Empty rhetoric and half measures won’t get the job done,” said Warren, who faces re-election in November. “We need serious legislation that doesn’t just nibble around the edges of the problem ... that attacks the problem hard and commits the resources necessary to root it out.”

More than four years ago, when the Franklin County Regional Opioid Task Force was established, its members were among the first in the nation to assert that we won’t arrest our way out of the addiction problem locally. And neither will we simply interdict our way out of the problem at the border, and we won’t wish our way out of the problem by just saying “no.”

Reversing this scourge will require lots of money for lots of professionals helping the addicted to recover, and finding ways to block the pathways and behaviors that can lead our friends, neighbors, children — and even police officers — to addiction.

In Massachusetts, estimates of opioid-related overdose deaths declined by more than 8 percent during 2017 after rising steadily for several years. The decline came as the state enacted new laws to combat the crisis.

The time has come for the nation to follow the example set by Massachusetts. We support Warren’s move. We hope it passes, and that the extra resources targeting hardest hit areas will begin to make a difference against a scourge that is killing people and destroying lives.


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