Members of the U.S. Senate Health Committee heard Thursday that more research will be needed if they are to combat the nation's opioid addiction crisis.
"Addiction is a powerful force, driven by the powerful ways in which opioids literally can rewire the brain," said National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins. "When people suffering from addiction seek help, we owe it to them to provide treatments that will work for them. Research can help us get there."
Collins and others spoke as committee chairman U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., kicked off a series of hearings addressing the opioid crisis and highlighting the federal response to the epidemic.
"The opioid crisis is tearing our communities apart, tearing families apart and posing an enormous challenge to health care providers and law enforcement officials," Alexander said in his opening statement to panelists and expert witnesses from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the NIH, and the Food and Drug Administration.
In 2016, a record number of Tennesseans died from drug overdoses, and nearly 73 percent of those deaths were attributed to opioids.
President Donald Trump's administration recently announced that under the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which was signed by President Barack Obama in 2016, $144.1 million in grants will be awarded to prevent and treat opioid addiction. Tennessee will receive $6 million from those grants, Alexander said.
But the panel's senior Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, voiced her concern that the administration isn't doing enough and cited Trump's recent budget proposal, which includes cuts to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA.
"We need more support, not less," Murray said.
Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, who leads SAMHSA, said the administration will "look to Congress and the president to come to an agreement that we hope will allow us to continue our programs."
Senators and witnesses seemed to agree that more research is needed to better understand and combat the crisis.
There are currently three medications approved to treat opioid use disorder, but, Collins said, relapse rates remain high and new options are needed, such as products that render opioids less addictive, non-addictive painkillers, devices and improved therapies.
Training more practitioners, limiting prescriptions and improving access to treatment, especially for individuals in rural areas, were also topics of discussion.
"Congress has worked a lot in a bipartisan way to provide funding and update programs to assist states and help combat this public health crisis," Alexander said.
But while steps have been taken to curb the epidemic, the panel acknowledged that there is a long way to go.
"We need to work together to have any chance of making real progress," said FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who served as a witness.
The health committee will hold its second opioid series meeting next month to examine the crisis at the state and local level.
Contact staff writer Elizabeth Fite at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6673.