Imagine every ventilator in the United States being switched off, all at once. That’s what leaders are doing to recovery funding for addiction services in America — and they count on us dying before anyone notices.
Before coronavirus, America already faced record numbers of deaths from a different epidemic. Over 350 people died every day from an illness just as deadly as COVID-19. This disease, which is more widespread than any flu, hides in plain sight in one third of all American households. It affects 27 million people, every day. It’s substance use disorder, and it’s killing Americans at record rates. In spite of these overwhelming numbers, policy makers cannibalize recovery funding to plug holes in our fractured health system. The stigma of addiction ensures that public servants feel justified leaving “addicts” to die, while earmarking funds that are meant for our community for coronavirus instead.
I have spent months advocating and contacting several behavioral health and public health leaders and every one of them told me their hands are tied: any money for healthcare is dedicated to COVID-19 now.
Nearly 71,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2019, and experts all agree that number will continue to rise in 2020. New data shows that the brief improvement in survival rates has been reversed, and now we are hitting a new record. This resurgence of substance related deaths coincides with the COVID-19 crisis. That’s no coincidence: the coronavirus pandemic is driving those death rates up, and the White House and many experts believe it’s only going to get worse. I have spent months advocating and contacting several behavioral health and public health leaders and every one of them told me their hands are tied: any money for healthcare is dedicated to COVID-19 now. Yet, where was this sense of urgency two years ago, or five years ago, or ten? Recovery advocates and harm reduction specialists made recommendations back then that would save billions of dollars and millions of lives now, whether a person is facing COVID or cocaine addiction. At the moment of truth, the recovery community is failed once again, by a system that is designed not to save us, but to sacrifice us because our lives always come second.
On top of the double danger of untreated addiction and coronavirus, behavioral health services are the first on the chopping block as leaders take advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to steal from programs that save lives. Oregon, which is already last in the nation for access to recovery services, plans to slash $69 million from its 2021 budget. Colorado cut $26 million from its budget. Minnesota is reducing services in proportion to reduced payouts from Big Pharma. Many states are using COVID-19 as an excuse to strip severely underfunded services from people who were already on a razor’s edge. The result? More overdoses, fewer recoveries, and an annual death toll that is higher than the entire Vietnam War.
They’ve decided that their priority should be robbing our most vulnerable populations, destroying hard fought gains that are beginning to show real progress on the front lines of the addiction crisis.
Recovery advocates have pushed for years to get substance use disorder recognized by insurance companies, lawmakers, and healthcare providers. Yet, as soon as COVID-19 hit the United States, these experts and decision makers have thrown up their hands and decided they would rather let people die than do their jobs. They’ve decided that their priority should be robbing our most vulnerable populations, destroying hard fought gains that are beginning to show real progress on the front lines of the addiction crisis. Opioid related funding, which the federal government only released within the last few years, contributed to the small dip in death rates, but now we are right back where we started — and it’s getting worse every day.
Addiction is a mental health disorder that is characterized by recurring substance use, feelings of hopelessness, social isolation, and obsessive thinking. It’s in the same family as mental health issues like bipolar disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. Remission is possible, but requires intense, community based treatment and support. Many of us who have been healthy for years are now facing new challenges. COVID-19 precautions make it impossible to meet in person; the stress of quarantine intensifies mental health issues; and isolation compounds a potentially lethal feeling of hopelessness. Addiction related deaths include overdoses, suicides, accidents, and what are known as “deaths of despair.” Call it what you want, but these deaths have lowered the life expectancy for all Americans, regardless of race, class, and income. And lawmakers seem to have no problem bleeding millions of families, communities, and neighborhoods of the resources that are keeping them on the right side of the dirt.
We are back to trying to help one another, and the death toll will reflect the severe limitations we face when we’re deprived of funding for housing, treatment, support services, and access to care.
No matter where you look, recovery is being bled dry — without a plan, clear outcomes, or even protocols everyone can agree on. According to STAT, “Medicaid supports 21% of the country’s spending on substance use disorder programs. Though the federal government earmarked $425 million for behavioral health in its emergency coronavirus relief package, experts say the help won’t come close to filling the hole.” That means that the government is putting all its chips on COVID. The rest of us? We are back to trying to help one another, and the death toll will reflect the severe limitations we face when we’re deprived of funding for housing, treatment, support services, and access to care.
People in and seeking recovery were already fighting for our lives in the national addiction epidemic, before coronavirus came along.
Make no mistake: behavioral health issues, such as addiction, have a long term impact on the American economy and way of life, maybe even longer than COVID-19. People in and seeking recovery were already fighting for our lives in the national addiction epidemic, before coronavirus came along. Now, we face a war on two fronts. We face death on a ventilator or death by overdose, because leaders can’t keep their sticky fingers out of funding earmarked for recovery. If we don’t change that immediately and ensure that every possible measure is taken to keep people healthy, safe, and well during these double pandemics — we’ll all end up on life support.
Ryan Hampton is a person in recovery from addiction and author of “American Fix: Inside the Opioid Addiction Crisis — and How to End It,” published by St. Martin’s Press. He’s a nationally recognized activist and organizing director at the Recovery Advocacy Project.