Few issues will unite presidential candidates on the campaign trail this year, but there is common ground on an important health care issue: the opioid epidemic. Drug overdoses claimed the lives of 129 people per day in the United States last year and this has caught the attention of the 2016 presidential candidates.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has laid out a detailed plan to allocate resources to states and local communities to tackle the problem. Other candidates have shared how addiction has personally touched their lives. Carly Fiorina recently spoke about the tragic loss of her stepdaughter to addiction and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush about his daughter’s journey to recovery. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie also opened up about his friend’s battle with addiction.
The candidates are talking, and we like what we’re hearing. Many of their strategies touch on the key areas of intervention: prevention, treatment and recovery supports. However, prevention often takes a back seat, which is why we’re urging candidates to propose more robust upstream solutions, such as SBIRT (screening, brief intervention, and referral to treatment), a public health approach that involves asking young people a few questions about drug and alcohol use and providing guidance or referring them to treatment if a problem exists.
Last week, we had the opportunity to hear directly from candidates at the New Hampshire Forum on Addiction and the Heroin Epidemic at Southern New Hampshire University. The event featured community leaders, elected officials and several GOP presidential candidates. Here are a few key messages from the candidates:
Addiction is not a moral failing: Many of the candidates are helping shift the narrative around addiction by reminding voters that a substance use disorder is a disease, and not a weakness or moral deficit. Each candidate at the forum sent this message loud and clear. Christie was particularly vocal, urging the audience and elected officials to continue speaking publicly about addiction in an effort to break down the stigma surrounding it.
Treatment, not incarceration: The candidates called for nonviolent, first time offenders to be offered treatment instead of jail time and underscored the importance of investing in treatment resources. Kasich pointed to Medicaid as an important tool in addressing substance use. He reminded the audience that because Ohio closed the coverage gap, the state was able to provide treatment and recovery support to Ohioans living with an addiction.
Intervene early: A bulk of the discussion on prevention centered on reducing drug supply through prescription drug monitoring initiatives and drug trafficking enforcement. Two candidates discussed the importance of preventing drug and alcohol misuse among young people before a problem develops. Jeb Bush and Ohio Governor John Kasich suggested that schools are an ideal setting for prevention. Kasich remarked, “If there is anything I would say here in New Hampshire, it would be to get in schools and talk to kids early.”
We are glad prevention is on the candidates’ agendas. We encourage them to take it beyond “just say no” approaches. Strategies like SBIRT offer a more robust approach to prevention where schools and health care providers can identify drug or alcohol use early and deliver a brief evidence-based intervention when needed. This low-cost approach can play an important role in preventing addiction.
It is rare to see members of different political parties working closely together, particularly as we approach a presidential election. Congressman Frank Guinta (R-NH) spoke at the forum about his partnership with Congresswoman Ann Kuster (D-NH) and remarked, “Addiction is an area where politics don’t matter. We will continue bipartisan action in Congress and here in New Hampshire.” That sentiment was repeated by many other speakers, including Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), a sponsor and vocal supporter of the bipartisan Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA).
We are encouraged to hear candidates discussing substance use disorders in a respectful way that reflects a growing understanding of the issue. While the focus is largely on overdose deaths, these discussions have also raised awareness about substance use disorders more broadly. We are eager to work with advocates to ensure this issue remains a priority during the presidential campaign and are optimistic that candidates have found common ground. All Americans will benefit from comprehensive bipartisan solutions to this national crisis.