November 19, 2020

Warren, Markey Ask NIH for Updates on Reopening Opioid Treatment Research Programs

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, over forty states have seen increases in opioid-related mortality. Despite the increasing need for opioid use disorder treatment, reports have indicated that several behavioral health and addiction treatment studies at NIH have been put on hold.

Text of Letter

Washington, DC - Today, United States Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (HELP), and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) sent a letter to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) requesting information on opioid treatment research programs that have reportedly been paused as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the letter, the Senators ask a series of questions regarding the status of these programs and how NIH plans to mitigate the impact of this postponement.

"We are concerned that this postponement will impact the results of this crucial research to the detriment of those struggling with opioid use disorder (OUD). In light of the growing number of opioid overdoses and deaths, it is crucial this research be completed in a timely manner so that those struggling with OUD may receive the high-quality, evidence-based treatment they need," wrote the lawmakers. 

NIH is the leading government agency conducting biomedical research, including research on the opioid crisis. This research helps develop and study new forms of treatment that improve the nation's response to the opioid epidemic and other challenges to public health. However, reports have indicated that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, NIH has paused several opioid and substance use disorder research programs which would study disparities in access to behavioral health treatment and how to improve the availability of medication assisted treatment (MAT) to incarcerated individuals. These programs could help develop new techniques to better treat people struggling with OUD and help inform policymakers work to end the opioid epidemic. NIH has not yet released information regarding the status of these paused programs nor how the delay may affect the studies' outcomes.

In recent months, the United States has experienced a significant surge in opioid overdoses and overdose deaths. Since the beginning of the public health crisis in March, over forty states have seen increases in opioid-related mortality. This follows an increase in opioid overdose deaths of over 70,000 in 2019, a 5 percent jump from 2018. Shelter in place and social distancing measures have complicated patients' access to potentially life-saving MAT and counseling services that thousands rely on. These growing numbers are particularly troubling, as those who suffer from OUD and other substance use disorders are more likely to struggle with homelessness, economic insecurity, and other comorbidities that increase their chances of contracting COVID-19.

Similar to the COVID-19 pandemic, Black and Brown communities have borne the brunt of the opioid epidemic and its resurgence. While overdose rates are decreasing overall, rates of overdose in Black and Brown communities are increasing. These accelerating trends paint a grim picture for those struggling with OUD and the country's work to recover from the opioid epidemic. 

Senator Warren and the late Representative Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) led over 95 of their colleagues in introducing the Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Emergency (CARE) Act, which would distribute $100 billion over ten years directly to communities to help them combat the opioid crisis. The bill also provides several billion dollars to NIH to conduct research on the crisis.