HHS Deputy Secretary Shares Vision for Combating Opioid Crisis

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Photo of HHS Deputy Secretary, Eric Hargan addressing the crowd at the 2018 Healthy Aging Summit
Eric Hargan, HHS; photo courtesy of American College of Preventive Medicine

Better care coordination, including telehealth and ride-sharing services, can help diminish the impact of the opioid crisis among seniors, as described by Health and Human Services Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan during his keynote address on July 16 at the 2018 Healthy Aging Summit in Washington, D.C.

I’m not sure many caregivers for the elderly would have thought they’d be dealing with drug addictions,” said Hargan, who previously served at HHS in a variety of capacities from 2003 to 2007, ultimately holding the position of acting deputy secretary.

Statistics bear out Hargan’s concern. The AARP said last year that in 2015, 2.7 million Americans over the age of 50 abused painkillers, with abuse meaning they took them in amounts beyond — or for reasons other than — what their doctors originally prescribed. The hospitalization rate due to opioid abuse has quintupled over the past two decades for those ages 65 and older, the same AARP report shows.

Additionally, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration said in an August 2017 report that more than 500,000 Medicare Part D beneficiaries received high amounts of opioids in 2016, with the average dose far exceeding the manufacturer’s recommended amount.

To combat this problem, Hargan advocated for better and more specialized pain management for seniors, saying there need to be changes in the way we care for older Americans.”

That includes better integration of health care and human services, especially for residents of rural areas who can’t easily get to appointments. Hargan suggested that ride-share companies like Lyft and Uber could play a big role in delivering better care to rural patients, where the opioid epidemic has flourished. Specifically, he recommended removing stringent regulations on these companies, so they can work with insurers and providers to get patients to doctor or physical therapist visits.

Hargan also said telehealth services could help mitigate the opioid crisis by providing near-constant monitoring of patients who don’t have ready access to care.

Beyond that, telehealth could be a resource for rural doctors to get training in addiction management. In Virginia, the Extension for Community Health Outcomes (ECHO) program, which started this year, brings together primary care doctors and nurses to learn from addiction specialists and psychiatrists.

Health care and human services must go hand in hand,” Hargan said. It’s vital to healthy aging.”