By Matt Baker

Baker is director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Region III, which includes Virginia.

Drug overdose deaths and opioid-involved deaths have been increasing in the United States. In 2016, more than 42,000 people died from an opioid-related overdose — about 116 people each day. It is estimated that more than 2 million Americans will suffer from addiction to prescription or illicit opioids in 2018. All told, this is the deadliest drug epidemic in our country’s history.

Last fall, at President Trump’s direction, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) declared the opioid crisis a nationwide Public Health Emergency. Fighting this public health crisis is and will remain a commitment of the President and HHS Secretary Alex Azar, and great strides are being made by states, local governments, community and faith-based groups, and the private sector.

The 2018 federal spending bill, recently approved by Congress and signed by President Trump, included an allocation of $4.6 billion to address the opioid and mental health crisis. This is a $3 billion — 192 percent — increase over FY2017. These much needed funds will be allocated across agencies to support opioid prevention, treatment, and enforcement efforts.

The legislation recognizes the importance of the role of the community in winning this battle, in part by providing grants to states and localities to help fight opioid abuse. While this epidemic has reached across the country, including both rural and urban communities, some areas are more affected than others. Some of these areas hardest hit include large portions of HHS’s Region III —Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and D.C. — which I represent. This agreement ensures funding is directed toward states and communities with the greatest need.

HHS will share a significant responsibility in effectively utilizing these resources. Some highlights of this new funding include the following:

n Our Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration will provide states with an addition $1 billion to support prevention, treatment, and recovery services.

n The National Institutes of Health announced it is doubling its research funding for pain and addiction, including the newly introduced Helping to End Addiction Long-term (“HEAL”) initiative.

n The Health Resources and Services Administration is investing $130 million in a Rural Communities Opioid Response program, which will be targeted toward the 220 hardest-hit rural counties in America.

n The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is investing $350 million for opioid overdose prevention, public health surveillance, and state prescription drug monitoring programs.

While the funding is important, there is still much work ahead to do in order to address this growing epidemic. There is something all of us can do in our own communities, in fact. This Saturday, April 28, is National Prescription Drug Take Back Day, an opportunity to dispose of unused prescription medications, including opioids, and prevent their misuse. If you or someone you know has unused medications, they can be dropped off at hundreds of municipalities across the region on Saturday, April 28. You can find a drop-off location at police departments, pharmacies and other locations near you by going to DEATakeBack.com or calling 1-800-882-9539.

Within all these efforts, there is an overall goal to change the mindset in how we treat individuals struggling with addiction. People who are addicted to opioids should never be stigmatized, and their addiction should be treated as a medical condition. By recognizing that addiction is a disease, we can remove some of the impediments that discourage people from seeking treatment. If you want information and resources for someone you know in need, visit HHS.gov/opioids.

I am hopeful and encouraged to see government, families, faith-based organizations, employers, educators and law enforcement working together as well to address this terrible drug epidemic and save lives. Together, with each of us doing our part, we will end this crisis.

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