HHS Secretary Targets Opioid Epidemic

By John Lavitt 11/09/15

HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell is the most important national administrator in the addiction treatment and recovery field.

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Sylvia Burwell
HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell Photo via

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell is being asked more and more about the country's growing opioid epidemic. Given the number of overdoses due to both heroin and prescription painkiller abuse in recent years, Burwell has found the issue to be front and center in her recent travels. In Colorado, she pointed to the severity of the crisis when she said, “The number of deaths that come from overdose is greater than the number of deaths that come from car accidents."

Burwell oversees 11 health-related agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Center for Disease Control (CDC), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Given that the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA) operate under the NIH, Burwell is the most important national administrator in the addiction treatment and recovery field.

While on a recent visit to New Jersey to promote the Affordable Care Act, Burwell expressed her views about the opioid epidemic. She was asked what HHS is specifically doing to address the crisis. Burwell outlined three priorities. Two of the priorities were access to the opioid overdose drug naloxone for front line medical personnel to help prevent overdose and access to medication-assisted treatment options for people seeking help for opioid substance use disorder.

A third key priority for Burwell to combat the prescription painkiller abuse epidemic is the reform of prescribing practices by doctors across the country. As she explained, “…we know that many people switch from prescription opioids to heroin. So we’re going to be putting out new guidelines to help doctors and physicians and others to use guidelines when they’re prescribing because we know that in this country two years ago there were 250 million prescriptions of opioids. That’s one for every adult in the nation. So there’s over prescribing going on.”

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles with his beautiful wife, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

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