May 18, 2022

New Data Shows Over 100,000 Lives Lost to Overdose in the U.S. in 2021

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released its report on overdose deaths in the U.S., identifying an unfortunate milestone of 107,622 deaths in 2021. That figure is up nearly 15 percent from the previous year but, more importantly, is higher than any year in which data was collected. Academy members have been sounding the alarm since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic about the impact such isolation and decreased access to services was having on folks, especially those with substance use disorder. Since 2001, a staggering one million people have lost their lives to overdose.

From the 2021 statistics, the majority of deaths were the result of opioids, but deaths from methamphetamine and cocaine also increased. Rural communities carried a heavy burden of deaths, including Alaska which saw an increase of 75 percent in 2021, more than any other state. Treatment is unavailable to many, with only 1.4 percent of the 15 percent of people needing treatment able to access it.

When it comes to the opioid epidemic, there are many factors at play from both a policy perspective and a political one.

  • Readers may recall that in December of 2021, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) announced an unprecedented $30 million in harm reduction grants to help address the nation’s substance use and overdose epidemic. This funding would allow organizations to expand their community-based overdose prevention programs in myriad ways, including by distributing overdose-reversal medications and fentanyl test strips, providing overdose education and counseling, and managing or expanding syringe services programs to help control the spread of HIV and hepatitis C. Additionally, innovative harm reduction services are a critical pillar of the Health and Human Services’ Overdose Prevention Strategy that was released in October.
  • Readers may also recall that the SAMHSA grants became the center of political gamesmanship over the budget in February and March when some members of the Senate made disingenuous claims about what the grants would cover.
  • Then, just two weeks ago, the White House released its 2022 National Drug Control Strategy which proposed significant new funding for addressing untreated addiction for those at-risk of an overdose, as well as law enforcement dedicated to the “control” side of the equation.
  • Several opioid settlement-related lawsuits continue to work their way through various courts, giving states and localities some potential revenue for responding to overdose deaths; and finally
  • H.R. 7666, the Restoring Hope for Mental Health and Well-Being Act of 2022, a bill that expands mental health services and also reauthorizes significant SAMHSA programs, was marked up in the House today and passed. However, particularly because this is an election year, there was debate about harm reduction which will be at the center of policy and appropriations fights. A significant issue that was included in the underlying bill is the Mainstreaming Addiction Treatment (MAT) Act which would eliminate the so-called X waiver requirement to prescribe buprenorphine and allocate funds for a national education campaign for healthcare providers. This passed with an overwhelming majority. Many Academy members have fought to make this a reality and it will have an immediate impact on patient care despite the pressures on harm reduction initiatives, the Biden Administration continues to push forward on policy fixes to help ensure the health and wellbeing of those with substance use disorder. The Academy continues to work with our coalition partners to stave off attacks on that progress, while advancing policy protections for these live-saving programs.

View the latest Policy Update here.