Our nation faces a tremendous challenge in fighting an epidemic of opioid misuse. Many Americans have developed their addiction following treatment for a painful condition, and many are overdosing on prescription painkillers or illegal opioids like heroin and illicit fentanyl. In fact, it is estimated that between 60 and 75 percent of Americans who use heroin started with misusing prescription opioids.
Confronting this challenge from all angles is one of HHS’s top four priorities, and an area of significant focus for President Trump’s entire administration.
But as we combat the opioid crisis, we cannot forget that pain is a real problem. Severe pain - chronic or acute - affects a broad spectrum of our fellow Americans: our children, our parents, our spouses, our relatives or our neighbors. We must do a better job of securing for them safe, effective options for managing pain.
That is why, this week, the Department of Health and Human Services was honored to host the first meeting of the Pain Management Best Practices Inter-Agency Task Force, a critical component of the 2016 Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA). This important body is charged with reviewing current best practices, determining if there are any gaps in practice, and developing recommendations to improve pain management.
Through measures like establishing this Task Force, the President, Congress and HHS have recognized that we cannot solve the opioid crisis just by addressing its downstream effects. We have to attack the crisis at its root - by looking at the intersections of mental health, addiction and pain, and by better understanding how a lack of safe and effective pain management has led to the overprescribing of opioids.
The importance of this task is recognized by the Trump administration-wide strategy for the crisis, as well as the HHS strategy for fighting the opioid epidemic, which includes advancing the practice of pain management as one of its five pillars.
For our fellow Americans trying to live and work with pain, this task force could be a transformational opportunity. It will be a venue for our government agencies, as well as outside stakeholders and experts, to cooperate and improve our work on pain management. The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health (OASH), within HHS, is taking the lead and overseeing this effort, in conjunction with the departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense.
The Task Force includes representatives of HHS agencies, the VA, Defense and the Office of National Drug Control Policy, as well as non-federal representatives with diverse expertise in pain management, advocacy, addiction, recovery, substance use disorders, mental health, minority health and more. Members also include patients, first responders, hospitals and groups with expertise in overdose reversal. The Task Force is chaired by Dr. Vanila Singh, chief medical officer of OASH.
The Task Force will be accepting public comment on all of its proposed recommendations - input that comes on top of the huge amount of feedback we have received and processed regarding pain policy so far. It is our hope that the Task Force - and the public response to its future recommendations - will help us identify a path forward to effectively and substantially improve pain treatment in America.
Together, we can end our country’s crisis of opioid addiction, while building a better path forward for Americans living with pain.
Alex Azar, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and Adm. Brett P. Giroir, M.D. is the assistant secretary for health.