Recently, the President’s Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) published a report on the underestimated cost of the opioid crisis in America. Curbing illicit drug trafficking, reducing over-prescription by doctors, and cracking down on drug distributors are all major focus points of the report. While these are all good intentions, there is a serious lack of access to medical professionals who have joined the fight against opioid addiction.
A Growing Opioid Problem
The CDC reports that nearly 72,000 Americans died last year from drug overdose. Over two-thirds of those overdose deaths were caused by opioids. For perspective, that’s more deaths than car crashes and gun deaths combined. Another massive problem is that approximately 80% of Americans struggling with opioid addiction aren’t receiving treatment. This is due in most part to lack of access to a medical professional.
Nearly 80 million Americans don’t have adequate access to primary care. Those living in rural areas are five times more likely to live in a county with a primary care shortage. Because of this, nearly 80% of those struggling with an opioid addiction are not receiving treatment.
An Overlooked Solution to the Opioid Crisis
“Medication-Assisted Treatment” is on the front line of treating opioid addiction. Drugs like methadone and buprenorphine are used to get patients off opioids safely. Combined with counseling and therapy, this method has proven to be an effective treatment. However, there is a largely overlooked position in the medical field that could be doing more: nurse practitioners.
Nurse practitioners are well positioned to help in treating addiction. They have advanced degrees and training and are able to assess patients, interpret diagnostic tests, and prescribe medication. A study done by the journal Medical Care found that NPs have lower rates of unnecessary hospital admissions, hospital readmissions, and inappropriate or unnecessary emergency room visits.
The problem is that many states limit the responsibilities of NPs. For example, states like Mississippi require NPs to only practice within a few miles of their physician. This all falls under the “collaborative agreement” nurse practitioners must sign with their physician. In Missouri, for example, NPs can prescribe medication, but with many limitations. Many states don’t allow nurse practitioners to prescribe drugs like methadone for opioid addiction.
In 28 states NPs are able to receive training and a waiver to administer Medication-Assisted Treatment only if their attending physician is qualified to apply for the same training. Clearly, there is a pressing need to remove restrictions and empower nurse practitioners to help in the fight against opioid addiction.
“Federal lawmakers have demonstrated that they’re serious about ending the opioid epidemic. State lawmakers can show they’re serious by allowing NPs to do their jobs.” Tommy Thompson and David Herbert, Time Magazine
The opioid crisis in America needs all the help it can get. The work force for nurse practitioners is growing at 6.8% annually. While this is very positive, NPs need more freedom and less government restrictions to treat addiction. Until with every tool is available to them, these gaps in treatment will still occur.