Partisanship usually gets the blame when Washington fails to muster an appropriate governmental response to the nation’s challenges. But when it comes to confronting prescription drug abuse, the divide within the government is caused not by the culprit of partisan stripes but rather by departmental silos. That needs to change.
Currently, when it comes to prescription drug abuse, there is the response of the enforcement agencies and there is the response of the health agencies. These approaches all too often remain separate and out of sync. As a result, stories of those ravaged by drug abuse are pitted against stories of those deprived of access to prescription medications they need for legitimate purposes. Both aspects of human suffering need to be figured into the solution.
On July 10, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., introduced the Combating Prescription Drug Abuse Act to do just that. The bill builds on a concept that gained attention during the 112th Congress and that now deserves action.
It would create a commission consisting of the Department of Health and Human Services, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, patient groups, state attorneys general, local law enforcement officials, and representatives of pharmacies, prescribers, hospitals and drug wholesalers. The commission would be charged with identifying solutions to prevent or reduce drug diversion and abuse and to ensure that patients continue to have legitimate access to medications.
Eight senators started down this path earlier this year, writing to the Government Accountability Office to request a survey of what can be done to “successfully increase coordination in our efforts to combat prescription drug abuse.”
The signatories included Boxer and Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. The diversity of this group by party, ideology and geography symbolizes the collaboration necessary among federal agencies and should not be overlooked.
Lack of coordination is not unique to efforts to confront prescription drug abuse. In March, the GAO frequently used words including “fragmentation,” “overlap” and “inefficiencies” to describe the government’s approach to drug abuse of all varieties.
Lack of interagency coordination also has been a key focus of numerous and diverse issue areas, from national security to disaster preparedness to education programs. More positively, concerted efforts to improve cooperation on priority issues have been known to improve performance.
Improved coordination for the purpose of averting terrorism, for example, has been credited with thwarting attacks on the homeland.
To hear a story of one family that has been devastated by prescription drug abuse is to receive motivation to tackle the problem. Yet to hear a story of a suffering patient, whose treatment requires legitimate use of an appropriately prescribed medication, serves as equal motivation to protect access to that medication. Both of these scenarios are worth working for, and they are worth working for together.
Some might call it a shame that legislation is needed to foster collaboration within government and to prevent inconsistencies in government policies, but it would be more productive to put shame aside, recognize the need and meet it.
The real shame will come if the government does not make collaboration the focus of its efforts to address prescription drug abuse and other challenges now and into the future.
Steven C. Anderson is the president and CEO of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores.