The opioid epidemic has cut across income, geography, and other characteristics that often divide Americans.
By Francie Diep
(Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)
Earlier this year, after spending three days interviewing homeless injection-drug users in Vancouver, British Columbia, I took a plane home to California. During the flight, my row-mate — a woman about my mother’s age — asked me what I had been doing in the Pacific Northwest. When I told her about the story, the woman grew quiet for a moment. She explained that, several years ago, her son fatally overdosed on his prescription painkillers. He was just one quarter away from graduating from the University of Washington.
The opioid epidemic has cut across income, geography, and other characteristics that often divide Americans. That’s led to an extraordinary circumstance: Many anti-overdose, anti-addiction policies have received bipartisan support in the United States, according to recently released 2015 and 2016 survey data. “In a moment when we can’t get funding on Zika, when things are absolutely paralyzed on what to do about the Affordable Care Act and other health issues, this is one where we have agreement,” says Robert Blendon, a public-health researcher at Harvard University who worked on the surveys.
“Usually, you would find Republicans are very suspicious of more federal guidelines, but here, it’s equal across the board.”
Blendon and his colleagues found large majorities of both Democrats and Republicans supported offering treatment instead of prison time for people caught with small amounts of illegally obtained prescription painkillers and heroin. Majorities from both parties supported prescribing guidelines that recommend limits to how much opioid painkiller doctors should prescribe at once, and advocated for doctors to try physical therapy and non-opioid painkillers before turning to potent opioids like OxyContin. “Usually, you would find Republicans are very suspicious of more federal guidelines, but here, it’s equal across the board,” Blendon says.
In fact, the only major difference in policy opinion that Blendon’s team found was on whether insurance should pay for substance-use disorder treatment, which would lead to higher premiums for everybody. Democrats were more likely to support such a requirement than Republicans.
The key to this common ground is the large, diverse number of Americans who have seen the effects of opioid-use disorder firsthand. Forty-one percent, or more than two in five people in America, personally know someone who abused prescription painkillers in the last five years. The numbers were nearly equally split between low- and high-income households. Rural Americans were more likely than urban Americans to know someone who had abused prescription painkillers, but even so, more than one in three city folks knew a pill-user. America’s two big political parties tend to attract different demographics, which means they often encounter different problems in their own communities, but, in this case, we’re all seeing the same thing.
That universality may lead to expedient fixes. “I think, at the state level and the federal level, you’re going to see a very substantial number of opioid bills about monitoring physicians’ prescriptions, about guidelines, offering more state money for treatment centers,” Blendon says.
I remember being surprised when my middle-class, globe-trotting row-mate brought up her son so quickly. My Vancouver interviewees, some of whom never finished high school, were generally among the poorest people in Western Canada. But she was right to see the common ground.