During a visit to the state of West Virginia on October 21, 2015, President Obama addressed the country’s growing prescription drug abuse and heroin epidemic by announcing several efforts to address these issues.

The President’s actions focus on the increase in heroin-related overdoses in recent years – which nearly doubled between 2011 and 2013. According to the Administration, more Americans now die from drug overdoses than they do in motor vehicle accidents, and a majority of these deaths involve prescription medications. In 2012 alone, health care providers wrote 259 million prescriptions for opioid pain medications (which include hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine and methadone among others). Heroin is a part of the same class of drugs and the link between prescription drug use and heroin use is clear, with four in five heroin users misusing prescription opioid pain medications.

The President issued a Memorandum to Federal Departments and Agencies which laid out two directives for federal agencies:

  • train agency doctors on the proper prescription of opioids and
  • identify barriers to medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorders to develop action plans to improve access to treatment.

In addition, the Administration announced state, local and private sector efforts to address the epidemic from a variety of angles.  Specifically, over 40 provider groups (which include physicians, dentists, pharmacies, advanced practice registered nurses, physician assistants, physical therapists and educators) committed to:

  • Have more than 540,000 health care providers complete opioid prescriber training in the next two years;
  • Double the number of physicians certified to prescribe buprenorphine for opioid use disorder treatment, from 30,000 to 60,000 over the next three years;
  • Double the number of providers that prescribe naloxone–a drug that can reverse an opioid overdose;
  • Double the number of health care providers registered with their State Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs in the next two years; and
  • Reach more than 4 million health care providers with awareness messaging on opioid abuse, appropriate prescribing practices and actions providers can take to be a part of the solution in the next two years.

The White House published a fact sheet discussing these efforts in detail.

As we discussed in previous posts, employers should continue to educate their workforces on the risks involved with the use of prescription opioid medications and heroin abuse.  In addition, employers should consider whether a drug-testing program is appropriate for their workplaces in light of the growing epidemic.