HHS offers grants to tackle opioid crisis, while NIH outlines short-term and long-term goals to address addiction epidemic

Prescription and pills
Both the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Health and Human Services unveiled new programs aimed at the opioid epidemic on Wednesday. (Getty/Gti337)

Federal agencies are taking steps to address the opioid crisis, with the Department of Health and Human Services announcing millions in grants and the National Institutes of Health on Wednesday pushing for a multipronged, long-term plan. 

HHS announced that it will make more than $70 million in grants available through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMSA). All U.S. states, territories and free associated states are eligible to apply for the grants, which tackle three key areas:

  • Programs to increase access to medication-based treatments for opioid abuse
  • Initiatives to train and arm first responders with emergency treatments in the case of an overdose
  • Programs to increase access to overdose treatment

In the announcement, Secretary Tom Price reiterated that the opioid epidemic is a major policy concern for the Trump administration.

“We are committed to bringing everything the federal government has to bear on this health crisis,” Price said. “The purpose of these grants is to empower the heroes in this fight—the men and women on the forefront of supporting prevention, treatment and recovery initiatives in their communities.”

RELATED: Doctors, researchers take Price to task for ‘damaging’ addiction remarks, but he indicates support in blog post

SAMSA previously unveiled two other grant opportunities related to the opioid crisis, one for programs that support pregnant women who may be addicted to drugs, and another aimed at helping addiction recovery groups build long-term support systems.

Though HHS is promoting these new grant opportunities, critics of the Republicans' approach to healthcare reform note that the party’s American Health Care Act could have a profoundly negative impact on addictions, reducing patients' access to substance abuse treatment if they lose insurance coverage.

RELATED: CBO details AHCA impact on marketplace premiums; industry calls on Senate to preserve ACA coverage gains

Meanwhile, the leaders at the National Institutes of Health announced Wednesday that the agency will launch a joint effort with pharmaceutical companies to drive faster development of drugs aimed at curbing the epidemic.

NIH is aiming to take on the opioid crisis through three areas, as Francis S. Collins, the organization's executive director, and Nora D. Volkow, who leads the National Institute on Drug Abuse, wrote in an article for the New England Journal of Medicine. Each requires short-term, intermediate-term and long-term research goals:

  • Developing new medications to reverse opioid overdoses: In the immediacy, NIH and its partners are aiming to first develop strong opioid antagonist medications, and have set a more long-term goal for creating devices that could detect overdose and alert first responders or automatically inject naloxone
  • Creating new treatments for opioid addiction: The earliest goals for NIH, according to the post, are beefing up existing medications with new formulas and repurposing therapies that have already been approved. But in the future, the group wants to create treatments that can target the neurology of addiction and potentially even develop a vaccine.
  • Making changes to pain treatments: The immediate goal in this area is to develop opioid painkillers with abuse-deterrent properties. Long-term goals include applying precision medicine to pain treatment and taking a look at the benefits of cannabinoid treatments.

RELATED: Some doctors struggle to strike balance between curbing opioid prescriptions, caring for pain patients

“In the past few decades, we have made remarkable strides in our understanding of the biologic mechanisms that underlie pain and addiction,” the pair wrote. “But intensified and better-coordinated research is needed to accelerate the development of medications and technologies to prevent and treat these disorders.”

Ohio files suit against 5 drugmakers

Ohio is one of the states hit hardest by the nationwide opioid epidemic, and it has filed a lawsuit against five pharmaceutical companies, alleging that they played a role in fueling the crisis. The suit targets Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, Teva, Allergan and Endo International PLC’s End Health Solutions unit, The Wall Street Journal reported (sub. req.).

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, who filed the suit on behalf of the state, said that these companies mislead physicians and the public with marketing that downplayed the risks of opioid medications. Mike Moore, a Mississippi attorney listed as outside counsel on the case, compared it to tobacco companies using misleading marketing

“The evidence is going to show they knew what they were saying was not true and they did it to increase sales,” DeWine said.

In a statement issued to the newspaper, Johnson & Johnson said the allegations were “legally and factually unfounded.” Purdue said it shares Ohio’s concerns about the epidemic and looks forward to collaborating on solutions. The three other pharmaceutical groups declined to comment.