How Government Shutdowns Worsen the Opioid Crisis

By Lynn Webster, MD, Guest Columnist

On October 26, 2017— a little bit more than a year ago — President Donald Trump declared that the opioid crisis was a national Public Health Emergency. Most Americans seemed to back his initiative to stop opioid abuse, and to reduce drug supply and demand.

However, it seems the recent 35-day government shutdown and Trump's desire to build a border wall have been at cross-purposes with his concern about addressing the opioid crisis.

Two key aspects of Trump’s opioid plan were prevention and treatment of opioid use disorder. Prevention, in part, means reducing the supply. However, everything in the supply is not equally problematic.

Opioids fall into two major categories: those that are prescribed and those that are smuggled into the United States. The number of overdoses associated with prescription opioids has remained essentially unchanged since 2011, while the number of opioid overdoses due to illicit fentanyl and other synthetic opioids surged from 3,000 in 2013 to more than 29,000 in 2017. Most of these drugs originate in China.

One of Trump's major arguments for building a wall is that most drugs that kill Americans are coming over the southern border from Mexico. However, that conflicts with the final report of his opioid commission, which found that "we are losing this fight predominately through China."

Mexican cartels do smuggle illicit opioids across the southern border in passenger vehicles and tractor trailers, often at legal points of entry. Heroin and fentanyl are also smuggled into the U.S. by sea and air or through the mail. A physical barrier doesn’t block any of these types of entry.

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is tasked with inspecting mail to prevent drug smuggling. Before the government shutdown, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb was calling for more postal inspectors to intercept shipments of opioids. He wanted the government to be able to inspect 100,000 suspicious packages per year, but that would have required double the number of personnel that he had.

Government shutdowns handicap those efforts because it is difficult to hire during shutdowns. It can be challenging just to retain the employees you already have.

The Department of Homeland Security works with the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to patrol the South Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea to stop drug smuggling. These efforts may have been impeded during the shutdown, because some of these "essential" employees had to decide whether to work without pay or call in sick. We can assume that some of them chose the latter course of action. Some government employees may be looking for other jobs because they want a reliable paycheck.

Ironically, due to increased scrutiny at the border, drug smugglers have gotten more creative, increasing their use of tunnels, boats, air and even catapults. These efforts may have been more successful due to the lack of personnel guarding trouble spots because of the shutdown.

Addiction Treatment Impacted

Government shutdowns increase the likelihood that opioids could find their way past our borders. And our ability to treat people with opioid addiction may also be compromised.

Providing treatment for addiction was the other important part of Trump's plan for addressing the opioid crisis. An estimated 2.1 million people had an opioid use disorder in 2016, yet only about 20% had access to treatment. One of the reasons so few people are treated is that not enough clinicians are trained and certified to treat opioid addiction. The president's initiative requires increasing the number of clinicians certified to treat addiction.

Buprenorphine (Subxone) is one of the tools physicians use to treat opioid use disorder. Doctors require special training and certification to prescribe the drug, as well as a waiver from the Drug Enforcement Agency. During the government shutdown, the DEA was still able to review doctors’ applications, but there were about 30% fewer certifications than there were before the shutdown. It is unclear if that was due to the shutdown or not.

Regardless of whether there will be a physical wall on our border with Mexico, we can see the potential damage that the recent government shutdown can have on curbing the opioid crisis. Congress will now discuss the merits of various options to secure the border, and President Trump is threatening another shutdown if a border wall isn’t funded.

But one thing we should take away from the recent experience is that there isn't much point in saving ourselves from illegal immigrants if we can't protect ourselves from the dangers posed by a government shutdown.

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Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is a former president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine. Webster is the author of “The Painful Truth: What Chronic Pain Is Really Like and Why It Matters to Each of Us.”

You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD. 

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.