ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Agreeing with other health care experts that America is facing an “epidemic” of opioid addiction, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said Tuesday there’s hope for addicts as the nation rushes to expand addiction treatment and to educate providers and the public about the dangers of opioid abuse.
“This is part of a national tour I’m doing to focus energy and attention on the opioid epidemic that we have all across the country,” Murthy, the nation’s top health official, said after touring UNM Hospitals’ Addiction and Substance Abuse Program, or ASAP, facilities in Southeast Albuquerque.
“I’m here in New Mexico in particular because New Mexico has one of the highest rates of opioid overdose deaths in the country. I’m mostly here, though, to not only to talk about the crisis and learn more about what’s happening, but also to visit facilities and meet people who have gone through addiction and have come out on the other side and who are now in recovery.”
He met two such people Tuesday.
Lynette Kelly, 36, said she’s been in recovery at ASAP for seven years. She became addicted to opioid painkillers after a series of surgeries more than a decade ago.
Joannie Molina, 24, has been in recovery for two years. She was addicted to opioid painkillers at age 16, and graduated to heroin when it became too hard to get prescription painkillers. She didn’t seek help until she became pregnant.
“I tried quitting cold turkey the pills and the heroin, but I was never able to go more than five days,” Molina told Murthy.
“This program has helped me in like so many ways – the medications, my counselor. … The methadone program really made it possible for me to be where I’m at today,” which is clean, healthy and enjoying life again.
Like many opioid addicts, Kelly initially had no problem getting prescription painkillers.
“In a matter of two months (after her surgeries) I was getting pills from three different doctors. I knew of the risks of getting addicted, but in my mind it was, ‘It won’t happen to me.’ … Eventually, when I ran out (of pills) the doctors were giving me, I was buying them off the streets illegally. The last two years of my addiction, I was taking up to 30 pills a day. I’m lucky to be alive.”
Murthy thanked both women for sharing their stories. “It’s inspiring for people who are struggling with addiction to know that recovery is possible,” he said.
Opioids – drugs that include heroin and prescription drugs like oxycodone, hydrocodone and fentanyl – are highly effective painkillers that are also highly addictive. Seen as a godsend for pain sufferers when they became popular two decades ago, opioids were widely prescribed, and widely abused.
“The pendulum swung too far one way, where we prescribed opioids too much and to too many people,” Murthy said. “And many people developed addictions as a result of that. Now that we know that, we have to change.”
Murthy said federal officials are attacking the problem head on, starting with expanding access to addiction treatment.
“Right now in America we have over 2 million people who need treatment when it comes to addictions, but only 1 million people can get it. That’s a treatment gap that we have to close,” he said. “That’s why the Department of Health and Human Services and the federal government has made it a point to invest money in the expansion of treatment centers. That’s why President Obama has also requested over $1 billion in new money to fight the opioid epidemic.”
Other keys to addressing the opioid crisis are making naloxone – a fast-acting drug that reverses overdoses – readily available to opioid users as well as to their families, and improving prescribing practices among the nation’s 1.2 million health care providers who can write prescriptions, Murthy said.