Opioid Crisis

Many South Carolina residents don’t have access to effective treatments for opioid use disorder (OUD), according to a new 50-state analysis released on Thursday by the Pew Charitable Trusts (Pew). 

Pew analyzed several services offered at state-based opioid treatment programs (OTPs) as part of the study. Despite an astonishing 100,000 opioid-induced fatalities between June 2020 and 21, Pew found many programs have limited to no availability of some FDA-approved medications for OUD, such as injectable naltrexone and buprenorphine. In addition, a great many programs do not universally accept Medicaid, the nation’s largest insurer for substance-abuse treatment. 

“This shows that even if people with OUD can access OTPs in their state, their Medicaid insurance may not be accepted,” the report said. “This adds more barriers to care as the only remaining option would then be for patients to pay out of pocket.”  

But where South Carolina really falls behind other states, according to the report, is mental health services. Only four out of 22 programs, or roughly 18%, analyzed in Pew’s report offer mental health services as part of the program. Nationally, an average of 46.1% of programs offer mental health services. Mental health disorders are common among people with OUD, the report said.

“People try to disentangle it — say it’s only about addiction, but you have to have mental health treatment,” said Charleston resident Gil Kerlikowske, a former national drug czar for former President Barack Obama. “You need that. After the person is no longer addicted, and you want them to stay in recovery, you have to give them some mental health support.” 

The study follows troubling statistics showing drug overdose deaths skyrocketed during the pandemic. South Carolina went from a predicted 1,632 deaths in 2020 to 2,008 deaths in 2021, a 23% increase, according to provisional data. Nationally, there were more than 100,000 fatalities in the 12-month period ending June 2021 — a record that represented a 20.6% increase over the previous 12 months.

But even before the pandemic, the outlook wasn’t good, according to U.S. District Judge Bruce Hendricks, who pioneered a drug diversion program in South Carolina. 

“Opioid use disorder is affecting all walks of life, all ages and stages, races and genders,” Hendricks told the Charleston City Paper in an early 2021 report. “It’s a vice grip on people and their families.”

And during the pandemic, COVID-19 took center stage for health experts, while the opioid crisis continued to grow. 

“It’s just incredible,” Kerlikowske said. “COVID sort of took everybody’s eye off the opioid crisis, but when you look at these numbers, it’s just awful what it has done to these families.”

The Medical University of South Carolina is hosting the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, Dr. Rahul Gupta from 9-10 a.m., Feb. 23 in the Drug Discovery Auditorium and virtually via Teams. Gupta’s office coordinates the nation’s $40 billion drug budget and federal policies, including prevention, harm reduction, treatment, recovery support and more.

A separate community panel will be held later that afternoon at 1:30 p.m. at the College of Charleston Stem Center. Topics will include racial equity in drug policy, evidence-based harm reduction and supply reduction. 

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