Here’s some good news. Last year, for the first time since 1990, deaths from drug overdoses dropped in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports it wasn’t a big drop — about 5% fewer deaths. But might this indicate a trend?
Let’s hope so, because even with that decline, a staggering 68,577 Americans died from overdoses in 2018. Some died from street drugs like heroin, fentanyl and cocaine, but a majority OD’d on prescription opioid painkillers. Last year’s death toll was higher than all the U.S. fatalities during the Vietnam War.
While we may have the worst of this public health crisis behind us, the devastating aftereffects continue to plague communities nationwide. Now nearly 2,000 cities, towns and counties are fighting back, joining together in a federal lawsuit that seeks to lay blame for the opioid epidemic and, in the process, determine how they will be reimbursed for the astronomical costs associated with the decadeslong scourge.
The lawsuit targets major drugstore chains like Walgreens, Rite Aid, CVS and Walmart for fanning the flames of the prescription drug plague. Court documents quote employees from several of those corporations who claim there was never any meaningful oversight when obviously huge amounts of opioids were being routinely shipped out to their neighborhood pharmacies.
A Walgreens corporate employee, for example, says she questioned why one of its stores, in tiny Port Richey, Florida, was ordering 3,271 bottles of oxycodone — each month. After she sent up a red flag, nothing changed.
The class action lawsuit also blames the manufacturers of narcotics like OxyContin, Roxicet, Percocet and Opana — both big and smaller generic brand manufacturers — of churning out billions of opioid pain pills with no regard to the damage being done. The companies are accused of questioning almost nothing and failing to act upon or report suspiciously large orders. According to the lawsuit, the prevailing attitude seemed to be: Ship out as much product as possible. Rake in colossal profits. Ignore the human consequences.
But wait a minute. While it might be fashionable to go after deep-pocketed corporations (there is also a $17 billion opioid drug lawsuit playing out against Johnson & Johnson in Oklahoma), aren’t there other blameworthy players in this deadly drama? A wider look at the problem reveals that several other entities charged with drug control responsibilities obviously failed in their duty to protect the public and helped create this sad state of affairs.
Where was the Food and Drug Administration, with its mission to “protect the public health by ensuring the safety, efficacy and security” of drugs, when pill makers, doctors, pharmacies, insurance companies and others apparently turned a blind eye to the ever-increasing use of prescription narcotics?
Where was the Drug Enforcement Administration when more than 700,000 Americans overdosed between 1999 and 2017? The DEA is responsible for enforcing the controlled-substances laws and is supposed to concentrate on the “investigation and preparation for the prosecution of major violators.”
What about those doctors who so freely put pen to prescription pad and made it possible for addicts to get their next fix? Let’s agree that most physicians have their patients’ best interests in mind, but to date, only a relative few overprescribing doctors have actually been identified, stopped and imprisoned for their part in creating this tragedy.
If government agencies felt they lacked authority or manpower to act against this deadly epidemic, their leaders should have marched to Capitol Hill and demanded the power to complete their mission.
Surely, leaders of congressional health and public safety committees noticed that a record 72,000 Americans succumbed to the epidemic in 2017, some from street drugs like heroin but 49,000 from prescription drugs overdoses. You’d think the fact that 130 Americans pass away from opioid overdoses each day would have spurred politicians into action.
Why wasn’t there a coalition of government and industry leaders convened — the best and brightest from, say, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Medical Association and mental health and addiction experts — to try to find real solutions to this deadly problem? There has been a lot of study and talk but no definitive result. A 5% reduction in deaths is a tiny improvement. The failures to act abound.
This drug crisis festered for so long because we let it. This is a nation of intelligent and innovative people. As divided as we seem these days, can’t we find a way to enforce drug laws, expeditiously prosecute those who act in criminally negligent ways and provide meaningful help for the addicted and their struggling families? The answer is: Of course we can, if and when the tragedy of drug overdose deaths is made a priority.
That time is now. Time for a Manhattan Project-type approach to this deadly epidemic.