Today the American people are under attack by two serious diseases, one a deadly pandemic virus and the other a vicious plague of opioid drugs.
Opioid use disorder, or OUD, and COVID-19 have much in common. Both are serious diseases that scientists don’t fully understand or know how to bring under control, even as they rage through our society. Medical professionals and first responders throughout the country are grappling with both diseases as they stress our nation’s health systems and damage our communities in ways we could not have imagined.
This new reality requires us to make prudent decisions on how to deploy resources to most effectively deal with both problems at once. In the COVID-19 crisis, medical professionals — especially hospitals — have distinguished themselves heroically, demonstrating courage, resourcefulness and effectiveness under extremely challenging circumstances.
Who hasn’t been moved by the images of weary New Yorkers with cowbells cheering medical workers each night as thanks for their heroic work? People don’t realize that same kind of heroism has taken place in hospitals across the country over the past 15 years as hardworking professionals provide lifesaving treatment to those suffering from OUD.
COVID-19 and OUD both pose vexing policy questions. Government officials, even the most sincere, cannot agree on the best response. They differ on who bears responsibility for the crises and they lack consensus on what measures should be taken to address them. Just as an absence of national policy has resulted in confusion about shutdowns, quarantine and masks, our patchwork response to the opioid epidemic has resulted in uneven and ineffective address of an entirely man-made crisis.
One thing is clear, both OUD and COVID-19 are medical problems. Our nation’s hospitals and health providers treat medical problems. They do so scientifically with evidence-based solutions. Researchers and physicians have improved upon treatments for COVID-19 in just the past few months and they have done the same with OUD over the past many years.
Yet they are not currently guaranteed a place in discussions regarding potential settlements with the architects of the opioid crisis: the makers, distributors and retailers of these dangerous drugs.
State and local governments, on the other hand, sit squarely in those discussions and their budgets are in free fall. The pressure on states to use funds from any opioid settlement is going to be an irresistible force, as certain as gravity. If there is any doubt of this, legislators in one state have already proposed using COVID-19 bailout money to refurbish their state capitol. Actions like these echo the aftermath of the tobacco settlement of the late 1980s, where examples of misuse are legion and continue to this day.
We are at a crucial point with the nation’s opioid crisis as court actions against an irresponsible opioid industry appear to be approaching settlement. When this comes to pass, the wisest use of these resources should see them paid directly to our hospitals and medical organizations as quickly as possible. Programs and facilities exist for treatment, but they are woefully at risk after almost two decades of addressing the opioid crisis without support. Settlement funds could make a big difference and save lives — or they could be misdirected to redecorate statehouses and fill potholes.
Decisions affecting our health should be made by our health care professionals, not dictated centrally by governments. As 2020 has made frighteningly clear, a strong local hospital is possibly a community’s most important asset. We have one opportunity to get this right. If these settlement funds are squandered by government, many hospitals in our country will collapse under the financial weight of fighting pandemics on two fronts.
Let’s get it right this time, because we may not get a second chance.
John Kasich served as governor of Ohio from 2011 to 2019 and is the co-founder of Citizens for Effective Opioid Treatment, a not-for-profit organization created to advocate for real and evidence-based solutions for America’s opioid crisis.