The U.S. is “beginning to turn the tide” on the opioid epidemic, HHS Secretary Alex Azar said Tuesday, pointing to new federal data showing a slight dip in overdose deaths last year.
Preliminary CDC data released last week shows drug overdose deaths, which spiked in 2017, dropped 2.8 percent toward the end of last year and the beginning of 2018. Azar credited federal, state and local efforts, one day before President Donald Trump will sign overwhelmingly bipartisan legislation to address the opioid crisis.
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“The seemingly relentless trend of rising overdose deaths seems to be finally bending in the right direction,” Azar said in prepared remarks at the Milken Institute’s health care conference in Washington, D.C.
CDC Director Robert Redfield cautioned that his agency’s numbers are preliminary but said they are encouraging.
“We’ll see how that works out as we finalize the numbers,” Redfield said at the same conference.
Congress has directed billions of dollars to address the opioid epidemic, though public health experts say that is still far short of what’s needed to stem the crisis. The legislation Trump will sign Wednesday expands access to treatment and prevention programs and bolsters law enforcement efforts to curb illicit drug shipments.
Federal officials and lawmakers acknowledge work on this issue is far from over and will require additional investments. Drug overdoses killed 72,000 people in 2017, a 10 percent increase from the year before. Roughly two-thirds of these deaths involved opioids.
“We are so far from the end of the epidemic, but we are perhaps at the end of the beginning,” Azar said.
Azar called out efforts to expand access to medication-assisted treatment — considered the gold standard for treating opioid addiction — and the overdose-reversal drug naloxone. Azar said the number of naloxone prescriptions dispensed monthly has increased 368 percent since Trump took office.
Azar on Tuesday also unveiled a first-of-its-kind federal pilot program designed to help mothers with opioid addiction and their children. The project will be run through Medicare’s innovation office, which was created under Obamacare to test new ways for providing care.