U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin
Press Release

Baldwin, Smith Call for Continued Support for Opioid Overdose Prevention and Harm Reduction in COVID-19 Recovery Efforts

 

By - Oct 20th, 2021 11:59 am

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Tina Smith (D-MN) sent a letter to Dr. Mariam Delphin-Rittmon, the Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Abuse in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, asking the Biden Administration to continue their strong commitment to addressing the opioid and substance use disorder (SUD) epidemic, which has significantly worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to urging for additional support for SUD prevention, treatment and recovery efforts, they called for elevating the role of harm reduction and overdose prevention, including through syringe services and increased access to naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal medication.

In the letter, the senators highlighted that the COVID-19 pandemic has, dramatically exacerbated the opioid and SUD epidemic in this country, and the needs of patients and communities are clear. The nature of the public health emergency has increased social isolation and stress while decreasing access to treatment, supportive services and harm reduction, with significant repercussions for individuals facing addiction.”

The ongoing opioid epidemic has significantly worsened during the pandemic, with reported overdoses and deaths spiking to historic levels over the past year. In 2020, the United States experienced 92,500 overdose deaths, up from 71,000 in 2019. Overdose deaths continue to rise in 2021.

They continued later in the letter: “Given the scale of need at this moment, we must take an all-of-the-above, evidence-based approach to save lives. It has never been more important to follow the guidance of public health and addiction experts in adopting harm reduction strategies on a wide scale, including overdose prevention education, naloxone access initiatives, and syringe services programs (SSPs). These evidence-based approaches that focus on ‘meeting individuals where they are’ are a proven, effective tool to reduce medical emergencies, drug overdoses and deaths.”

The letter also urged the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to quickly allocate $30 million in funding for SUD harm reduction efforts that was provided by Congress in the American Rescue Plan Act (P.L. 117- 2), and called for input from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) so these funds can be distributed expeditiously to communities with the greatest need. They also requested that SAMHSA investigate and quickly take action in response to nationwide shortages of naloxone, which is a critical tool to reverse opioid overdoses.

The letter also has the support of leading Wisconsin and national public health groups.

“Senator Baldwin’s continued advocacy for treatment, recovery supports and harm reduction strategies is so important right now. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of Americans have struggled with substance use and mental health issues due to lost connections and barriers to support,” said Jesse Heffernan, RCP, of Appleton, Wisconsin, a recovery coach and person in recovery. “Harm Reduction is the umbrella for all pathways to and of recovery. Naloxone and syringe exchange programs are data driven, compassionate approaches to public health similar to CPR training and AED access. We look forward to the quick and targeted funding for Harm Reduction training, materials and strategies to help our communities save lives and bridge gaps in access to care.”

“Harm reduction based programs and services have a profound, positive impact on the lives of individuals impacted by the ongoing opioid epidemic. From preventing the transmission of hepatitis and HIV to preventing needless overdoses, every day these programs save lives in communities across the nation,” said Bill Keeton, Chief Advocacy Officer of Vivent Health, formerly the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin. “The need for these programs has never been greater and Vivent Health applauds Senator Baldwin for her unyielding commitment to supporting these critical efforts while calling on SAMHSA to elevate harm reduction in their response.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic has not only accelerated the already catastrophic loss of life due to the overdose crisis, but exposed the gross racial disparities in our nation’s response to people living with substance use disorder — many of whom are vulnerable to HIV,” said Jesse Milan, Jr., President & CEO of AIDS United. “It is essential that SAMHSA work with CDC and national harm reduction focused organizations to support syringe services programs and address rising overdose rates—especially in BIPOC communities — with evidence based, culturally competent care.”

“Our nation suffered nearly 100,000 overdose deaths in 2020 and the death toll continues to rise in 2021.  Like COVID-19, this overdose crisis should be treated as a public health emergency warranting an urgent response,” said Grant Smith, Deputy Director, Office of National Affairs, Drug Policy Alliance. “Senators Tammy Baldwin and Tina Smith appropriately urge the White House, HHS, and SAMHSA to increase its rapid response to this crisis and to include as a high priority in that response the expansion of life saving, effective, and evidence-based harm reduction interventions, such as syringe services programs and the wide distribution of naloxone to prevent drug overdose. The U.S. must respond more robustly now to save lives.”

Full text of the letter can be found here and below.

An online version of this release is available here.

 

Assistant Secretary Mariam Delphin-Rittmon, MD
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
5600 Fishers Lane
Rockville, MD 20857

Dear Assistant Secretary Delphin-Rittmon,

We commend you and other leaders in President Biden’s administration for your strong commitment to addressing the opioid and substance use disorder (SUD) epidemic, which has significantly worsened during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. We ask that you continue your strong federal support for SUD prevention, treatment and recovery efforts, and urge you to elevate and prioritize harm reduction as a key component of the needed response to this crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically exacerbated the opioid and SUD epidemic in this country, and the needs of patients and communities are clear. The nature of the public health emergency has increased social isolation and stress while decreasing access to treatment, supportive services and harm reduction, with significant repercussions for individuals facing addiction, particularly in communities of color already disproportionately impacted by the epidemic. Reported overdoses and deaths have spiked to historic levels over the past year, with data showing that the United States experienced 92,500 overdose deaths in 2020, an astonishing increase from approximately 71,000 in 2019.  Overdose deaths continue to rise in 2021.

Given the scale of need at this moment, we must take an all-of-the-above, evidence-based approach to save lives. It has never been more important to follow the guidance of public health and addiction experts in adopting harm reduction strategies on a wide scale, including overdose prevention education, naloxone access initiatives, and syringe services programs (SSPs). These evidence-based approaches that focus on ‘meeting individuals where they are’ are a proven, effective tool to reduce medical emergencies, drug overdoses and deaths. And further, SSPs provide a variety of services to reduce the rate of blood borne infections, including viral hepatitis and HIV, in individuals who engage in injection drug use (IDU). Recent IDU-linked outbreaks of hepatitis B and C and HIV demonstrate that it is critical to increase our investment in SSPS and reduce regulatory barriers to mitigate pathogen transmission and the rate of drug overdose.

We were pleased to see $30 million in funding for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to engage in harm reduction efforts included as part of the American Rescue Plan Act (P.L. 117-2). We view this funding as a down payment on a much larger need for investment in harm reduction, as well as an urgent opportunity to quickly address the direst impacts of this tragically worsening crisis. As such, we request that SAMHSA act expeditiously to direct these funds to the communities and organizations that need them the most, in collaboration with key harm reduction stakeholders and partner agencies. In particular, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has significant expertise in providing support and technical assistance for harm reduction efforts through its Infectious Disease and the Opioid Epidemic Program, and we ask for strong coordination with Director Walensky and her team.

SSPs are also effective at distributing naloxone – a drug that can prevent overdose deaths – both to people at risk of overdose and to other community members as a proactive measure. A study from Massachusetts found that substantially increased access to naloxone reduced opioid overdose mortality rates by 46 percent. With additional resources, SSPs can increase ready access to naloxone and its use, which would help reduce the dramatically increasing number of overdose deaths. We are concerned by reports that there is an ongoing shortage of generic intramuscular naloxone in some states caused by a disruption in production. We strongly urge SAMHSA to take measures to address this shortfall and ensure that naloxone can be delivered to states appropriately, in conjunction with harm reduction organizations that are currently on the ground providing such services.

Finally, we request that you take every action to ensure maximal flexibility in SAMHSA’s various other block grants and targeted funding streams so that harm reduction is both eligible and emphasized as an allowable use of these resources. We will continue our push to eliminate harmful funding restrictions on SSP funding through the appropriations process, and we look forward to your continued partnership on the issue with your current authorities.

We are facing an unprecedented addiction crisis in this country, and we thank you for your tireless leadership to stop the ongoing opioid and SUD epidemic. As a part of this response, we urge you to take every opportunity to center harm reduction as a vital part of the SUD services and care continuum. We appreciate your attention to this issue.

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