WASHINGTON, D.C. — With a record 2,110 fatal drug overdoses in Ohio in 2013 alone, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) outlined efforts to combat prescription drug abuse by increasing access to treatment options. Drug abuse now costs more American lives than car accidents, and opioid overdose – including death from prescription pain relievers and heroin – has increased dramatically due, in part, to a lack of treatment available to users and addicts.

“When it’s easier for Americans to access opioids than it is for them access help to treat their addiction, we have a serious problem,” Brown said. “Opioid addiction is a chronic disease that, when left untreated, places a large burden on our health care system and on our families. We must ensure that there are a variety of treatment options available for those who need help battling addiction, including effective medication-assisted treatment in combination with behavioral therapy and supports.”

Deaths from opioid overdoses in the United States have increased by more than five times since 1980. During a news conference call today, Brown released a county-by-county report on the number of deaths due to unintended drug overdoses in Ohio from 2008-2013. Each year, about 475,000 emergency room visits in the U.S. are attributable to the misuse and abuse of opioid pain killers.

This problem is particularly acute among veterans. According to a 2011 study from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), patients seeking care at VA clinics are nearly twice as likely to die from accidental poisonings – frequently from opioid medications – when compared with patients outside the VA health system. Brown discussed the Jason Simcakoski Memorial Opioid Safety Act, legislation he is cosponsoring that would provide safer and more effective pain management services to our nation’s veterans. The legislation focuses on strengthening the VA opioid prescribing guidelines and improving pain management services by:

  • Requiring stronger opioid prescribing guidelines and education for VA providers, including stricter standards against prescribing dangerous combinations of opioids with other drugs and for prescribing opioids to patients struggling with mental health issues;
  • Increasing coordination and communication throughout the VA between medical facilities, providers, patients, and their families surrounding pain management, alternative treatments for chronic pain, and appropriate opioid therapy; and
  • Holding the VA system accountable for appropriate care and quality standards through consistent internal audits as well as (Government Accountability Office) GAO reviews and reports to Congress.

In addition to improving opioid therapy and pain management, the bill would help strengthen patient advocacy, expand access to complementary and integrative health and wellness, and enhance VA hiring and internal audits. The bill is named for U.S. Marine Veteran Jason Simcakoski, who died at a Wisconsin VA facility in August 2013 as a result of mixed drug toxicity.

Brown also outlined a bipartisan bill he helped introduce that would allow health care providers to treat larger numbers of patients struggling with addiction to opioids like painkillers and heroin. The Recovery Enhancement for Addiction Treatment Act (TREAT Act) would update U.S. law to enable qualified physicians to treat larger numbers of patients struggling with addiction and – for the first time – allow certain nurse practitioners and physician assistants to provide supervised, medication-assisted treatment for patients.

Current law limits the number of patients a health care provider can treat for opioid abuse problems using medication-assisted treatment programs. Physicians must meet specific conditions and apply for a special waiver to prescribe certain opioid addiction medications, like buprenorphine. They are restricted from treating more than 30 patients during their first year and limited to treating only 100 patients per year after their first year. This has left patients to languish on waiting lists for medically-assisted treatment and has created barriers to patient access to combination behavioral and medical treatment.

Specifically, the TREAT Act would:

  • Increase the number of patients providers are initially allowed to treat from 30 patients to 100 patients per year during their first year of certification for treatment;
  • Allow certain physicians to request removal of the limit on the number of patients they can treat after one year;
  • Allow qualified nurse practitioners and physician assistants to treat up to 100 patients per year; and (keeping consistent with the first list); and
  • Require the GAO to examine changes in treatment availability and utilization; quality of treatment programs; integration with routine healthcare services; diversion; impact on state level policies and legislation; and use of nurse practitioner and physician assistant prescribers.

Brown is also seeking to get drugs out of wrongful hands through urging the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to reinstate its National Drug Take-Back Days. In a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch sent last month, Brown urged her to reinstate this program, which gives Americans the opportunity to turn over unwanted, unneeded, and expired medications so they don’t end up in the hands of people who may abuse them.