The opioid epidemic is considered the most unrelenting drug crisis in U.S. history. In 2016, approximately 64,000 people were killed by opioid-related overdoses, including prescription painkillers and heroin.
Two people recently in the news, are determined to find solutions to this crisis: Federal Judge Dan Aaron Polster of the Northern District of Ohio and Alex M. Azar II, the new Secretary of Health and Human Services.
Judge Polster has resolved to settle more than 400 federal lawsuits brought by cities, counties, and Native American tribes against makers of prescription painkillers such as Purdue Pharma and Johnson and Johnson, who marketed the pills for years knowing about their addictive properties; companies that distribute the pills, such as McKesson and Cardinal Health; and pharmacy chains like Walgreens and CVS Health that sell them.
Polster informed both plaintiff and defense attorneys that he intended to dispense with legal norms like discovery and ordered them to prepare for settlement discussions. “I did a little math,” he said about the rising number of overdoses. “About 150 Americans are going to die, just today, while we’re meeting.”
His aggressive approach has wielded results. 10 days after Judge Polster sought settlements, Purdue announced it would no longer market OxyContin to prescribers.“ This is a stunning about-face by Purdue, which has long contended that it has not influenced physician education with its drug reps,” said Dr. Ann Lemke, a Stanford addiction specialist. “I think the overwhelming pressure from Judge Polster, not to mention the court of public opinion, let to this radical reversal.”
On the medical side, in an effort to encourage medical assisted treatment (MAT) for opioid addiction, the FDA plans to begin allowing pharmaceutical companies to sell medications that stabilize brain chemistry, reduce or block the euphoric effects of opioids, relieve physiological cravings and normalize body functions. Secretary Azar intends to “correct a misconception that patients must achieve total abstinence in order for medication assisted treatment (MAT) to be considered.” Azar, who took office in January, wants to reduce the stigma associated with addiction and addiction therapy. The FDA has approved 3 drugs for opioid treatment: buprenorphine (known as Suboxone), methadone and naltrexone (known as Vivitrol). They are safe and effective combined with counseling and other social supports. The challenge now for patients is gaining access to these treatments.
Finally, both the legal and medical professions are taking the opioid crisis seriously.