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November 05, 2019

Spend the opioid settlement funds to prevent more deaths like my nephew’s: Rep. Trone

Credit: USA Today, Rep. Trone

In 2016, my nephew Ian died of a fentanyl overdose alone in a hotel room at the age of 24. Ian Jacob Trone had been clean for 18 of the last 21 months of his life before he became one of the 400,000 people in our country who have died from an opioid overdose in the last two decades.

For five years, I worked directly with him as he transitioned in and out of halfway houses, served time in prison for petty theft, and eventually moved to North Carolina so “new places and new faces” would keep him from the environment that had become an accomplice to his addiction.

Ian’s picture sits in my office as a reminder of the reason I ran for Congress — to help those who are struggling but don’t have a political action committee or a lobbyist to fight on their behalf. Those suffering from substance use disorder face an array of challenges from mental health disorders and stigma to an unjust incarceration system that keeps them from successfully engaging in long-term recovery. 

What caused the opioid epidemic that took my nephew’s life and the lives of 130 Americans every day? In part, the pharmaceutical companies that flooded our communities with prescription drugs and falsely claimed in the 1990s that their new opioid drugs were less addictive alternatives to painkillers.

Recent news reports indicate that Purdue Pharma, members of the Sackler family that owns Purdue, and other companies, including drug distributors, have agreed to settle many of the lawsuits related to the role of these companies in fueling the opioid epidemic. 

It is welcome news that the companies that profited from the opioid epidemic will soon be held responsible for the pain and financial damage they caused. When all is said and done, the amount of money that will flow from these opioid related settlements could reach about $50 billion. These settlements represent a prime opportunity to solve not just the symptoms of the crisis but the root cause as well. In order to do so, we must put the funding toward solutions that work. 

Putting the settlement to use

First, we need a permanent, nationwide prevention education program modeled on the Truth Initiative that was funded by the tobacco settlement. Over the past two decades, Truth helped reduce youth smoking rates from 23% in 2000 to 4.6% in 2018, saving countless lives and taxpayer dollars. We need the same, multigenerational effort to end prescription drug abuse.

Second, we should make naloxone and other overdose reversal medications available in every community across the country. We know this effort would save lives. A program in Hamilton County, Ohio, made naloxone available at no cost to as many residents as possible, which resulted in a 31% reduction in overdose deaths and a 42% reduction in emergency room visits in just two months. We should expand this effort to every community across the country. 

Third, money should be set aside to make evidence-based treatment available for everyone struggling with addiction. Three medications have been approved to treat opioid use disorder — methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone. These medicines can be hard to find in areas without treatment facilities and when health care specialists choose not to prescribe them. We need to make this treatment easier to access so all patients have a chance at successful recovery. This means opening up more quality treatment facilities (both inpatient and outpatient) and making them affordable, ensuring high standards for recovery residences to help transition people back to stability, and providing the wrap-around services needed to holistically address this chronic disease. 

Congress, keep a light on this crisis

Those at the negotiating table are not the only ones with a role to play. Congressional hearings should call attention to these needs and the details of the settlement. Parties on both sides of the settlement talks — and the officials who will be responsible for spending the proceeds — need to know that Congress expects the money to be spent in ways that will address the root causes of the crisis, and that we will conduct oversight hearings and use other means at our disposal.

We’ve lost a staggering number of individuals whose absence has induced exponential pain for many families, including my own. Our health care system, economy, and government and family budgets have paid the price. We must act with resolve to end this crisis, save lives, and give a platform to the voices that have been left behind in this epidemic.

Structured appropriately, the funding from the opioid-related settlements can be a meaningful step forward in our fight to end the opioid crisis and honor the lives we were unable to save. 

Congressman David Trone, a Democrat, represents Maryland in the House of Representatives. He founded the Freshmen Working Group on Addiction, a bipartisan group of freshmen lawmakers dedicated to ending the addiction epidemic in the country. Follow Trone on Twitter: @RepDavidTrone