Agencies and lawmakers take steps to confront the opioid epidemic at federal, state levels

HHS Secretary Alex Azar laid out the federal government’s support for medication-assisted treatment of opioid addiction during the National Governors Association meeting on Saturday. Meanwhile, legislators at the federal and state levels continue to grapple with the ongoing opioid epidemic.

In remarks delivered to the National Governors Association, Azar, the head of the Department for Health and Human Services, compared attempts to treat substance abuse without a combination of medication and therapy “like trying to treat an infection without antibiotics.”

He promised the Food and Drug Administration would soon release new draft guidance to help manufacturers developing new formulations of buprenorphine for monthly injections, which he expects to be of particular help in rural areas where fewer treatment options can make adherence challenging for addicts.

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The secretary also promised the FDA would release new guidelines to help researchers develop innovative studies around medication-assisted treatment, encouraging them to find new ways of evaluating the effects of their programs above and beyond patterns of drug use.

Working in parallel, federal lawmakers appear poised to push new opioid legislation out of the House by Memorial Day weekend, Rep. Greg Walden, R–Ore., told The Hill. In its recent 2019 budget proposal, the White House administration has also proposed $10 billion of additional funding to combat the opioid epidemic.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, reportedly have their sights set on an update to 2016’s Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act to ensure the $6 billion appropriated in the recently passed stopgap spending bill gets distributed properly.

At the state level, frustration with the obstacles addicts face in getting treatment have led agencies to re-examine their programs for publicly funded care, seeking to streamline the qualification process. For example, a program in Minnesota is expected to reduce wait times for treatment from weeks to a matter of hours, reported the StarTribune.

“One of the reasons this opioid epidemic is still here is because of all the paperwork,” James Cross, the founder of the advocacy group Natives Against Heroin, told the paper, adding, “When someone wants help, we need to get them to a safe spot—now.”