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OPINION

New tools needed in the fight against substance use disorder

The infrastructure around treatment must be strengthened by equipping medical professionals with the tools to manage patients with substance use disorders

A handful of oxycodone.
A handful of oxycodone.Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

The fight to combat substance abuse disorder affects all communities throughout the nation. There is not a zip code in the United States that has been immune to the scourge of increasing prescription and illicit opioid misuse, addiction, and overdose.

According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, over 2 million Americans suffer from Opioid Use Disorder specifically. To talk about this issue, it is critical to understand the facts. OUD is a chronic but treatable disease resulting from misuse of prescription opioids, heroin, or other illicit opioids. Addiction is like the common cold or depression and can afflict anyone from any background. And yet our nation treats addiction as if it were a moral failing rather than the treatable disease that it is.

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We must address stigma and lack of understanding about addiction that persists even within the medical community. Stigma keeps individuals from seeking treatment but also keeps medical practitioners from offering care. Only a small fraction of health care providers receive education and training on addiction. In order to address this crisis, the infrastructure around treatment must be strengthened by equipping medical professionals across the health care system with the tools to identify, treat, and manage patients with opioid and other substance use disorders. As a member of Congress and a medical doctor whose son fell victim to substance use disorder, we are taking action.

We are proud to spearhead the Medication Access and Training Expansion Act, which would standardize substance use disorder training to ensure that all prescribers of controlled medications possess baseline knowledge in evidence-based addiction prevention and treatment.

Through the training designed by the MATE Act, awareness around medication-assisted treatments would rise. The New York Times reports that more than 80 percent of people struggling with OUD in the United States are not being treated with medications that could foster recovery and help prevent overdose. These are treatments such as methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone that are approved by the FDA and work as a counter in the brain to reduce withdrawal symptoms and cravings. Studies show that patients who receive medication-assisted treatments are less likely to die from an overdose and have higher treatment retention rates and better long-term outcomes.

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We seek to make meaningful change and progress in the way that our nation treats substance use disorder by ushering in new and pragmatic policies. In the vast expanse of health data and statistics, it is sometimes easy for policy makers to lose sight of the fundamentally human nature of this problem. Numbers in a government report mean far more when they affect every corner of our country.

Max Baker began experimenting with drugs as an adolescent and became addicted to heroin at 17. Max was fortunate to have later found recovery with the help of medication-assisted therapy but suffered multiple injuries in a car accident in late 2016. He relapsed following surgery and died on Dec. 28, 2016, at the age of 23, from an overdose. .

Max’s journey through addiction, recovery, and ultimate death following a sudden relapse after surgery is tragically not an isolated incident. His outcome could have been different if his doctors knew how to safely manage acute pain in a patient recovering from opioid addiction.

Through the MATE Act, there is an effective way forward in ensuring that another family does not suffer a similar loss, and in allowing patients to access evidence-based care for what is a chronic, treatable disease.

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US Representative Lori Trahan of Massachusetts is a member of the Bipartisan Freshman Working Group on Addiction. Dr. James L. Baker, who served on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, practices at Merrimack Valley Hospital.