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Punishment Not the Way to Fight Overdoses, Say Mental Health Experts

Opioid addiction is likely to be declared a national crisis. It has already been declared an emergency in Virginia. (Dan Heyman)
Opioid addiction is likely to be declared a national crisis. It has already been declared an emergency in Virginia. (Dan Heyman)
August 11, 2017

RICHMOND, Va. – President Donald Trump is vowing to take a law-and-order approach to combating the nation's worsening opioid epidemic. But mental-health experts say that strategy ignores key truths about the problem.

In comments this week, the president told reporters, "Strong law enforcement is absolutely vital to having a drug-free society."

Rebecca Farley David, the vice president for policy and advocacy at the National Council on Behavioral Health, says prevention and treatment are the bigger keys to success. She notes that for many people, addiction starts at home.

"So often it happens because of legally prescribed pain medications, either that were legally prescribed for that individual or someone else in their family, and they had access to the pills," she explains.

She says the illicit use of street drugs such as heroin may follow on the heels of an addiction to pain medication, but stresses that drug enforcement is only part of a much more complex picture. According to the governor's office, more Virginians are now dying from opioid overdoses than from car accidents.

Farley David believes Health and Human Services Director Tom Price is saying the right things about the nature and causes of the opioid crisis, but she says action needs to happen soon.

She points to policy changes in Medicaid that could provide relief to thousands. The problem with Medicaid, she says, is simple.

"It doesn't permit payment for most residential substance-use treatment, due to an outdated payment prohibition built into the program," she says. "That needs to change."

She argues that prevention, treatment and recovery should be the three primary focus areas to curb the opioid epidemic.

Help with addiction can be found online at VaAware.com.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - VA