NIH announces new initiative to address opioid epidemic

Plan dovetails with APA recommendations to president’s opioid commission.

On April 4, 2018, Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), announced an ambitious new plan to stem the tide of the opioid epidemic.  Through the HEAL Initiative (Helping to End Addiction Long-term), NIH is nearly doubling its commitment to opioid research from $600 million in 2016 to $1.1 billion in 2018.

In remarks delivered at the seventh National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in Atlanta, Collins said: "Every day, more than 115 Americans die after overdosing on opioids, that is a four-fold increase since 2000, and the numbers continue to climb.  NIH has been deeply invested in efforts to counter this crisis through research, but we are determined to do even more. Over the last year, NIH has worked with stakeholders and experts across scientific disciplines and sectors to identify areas of opportunity for research to combat the opioid crisis. The focus of these discussions has centered on ways to reduce the over prescription of opioids, accelerate development of effective non-opioid therapies for pain, and provide more flexible options for treating opioid addiction. NIH is committed to bringing the full power of the biomedical research enterprise to bear on this crisis."

Among the priority areas Collins identified were several that the American Psychological Association (APA) had advocated for in its response last year to the Draft Interim Report of the President’s Commission on Combatting Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, including expanding therapeutic options for treating addiction, increasing access to non-pharmacologic treatments for chronic pain, an expanded focus on neonatal abstinence syndrome, and integrating substance use treatment within primary care and criminal justice settings. 

On the latter, Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) said:  "With these additional resources, we can develop more customized, high-quality treatments for addiction and pain, as well as harness implementation science to bring evidence-based changes to our healthcare system, including treatment for those in the criminal justice environment." 

Walter Koroshetz, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the lead NIH institute on pain, highlighted another area APA had voiced concern about, the transition from acute to chronic pain: " A major focus will be to understand why some people go from acute to chronic pain, with the intent to prevent that transition.  Importantly, the Initiative will drive the science to enable the development of powerful, non-addictive pain treatments that would limit the need for opioid medications in the future."

Missing from the rollout of the HEAL Initiative was any reference to NIDA’s highly successful community prevention research portfolio, which has demonstrated decreases in prescription drug misuse in rigorously designed randomized controlled trials.  APA will continue to be a vocal advocate for primary prevention research as the HEAL Initiative moves forward.

For more information on APA’s work on the opioid crisis, contact Geoff Mumford of APA’s Science Government Relations Office.