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How Will the ’21st Century Cures Act’ Address the Opioid Epidemic?

One of the most concerning issues we fact in the United States is the opioid epidemic. For the past two decades, millions of Americans have become addicted to prescription painkillers and heroin. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the number of annual overdose deaths caused by prescription painkillers has seen a 2.8-fold increase between 2001 and 2014 while heroin overdose deaths have increased 6-fold over the same period.1 Opioids have become such a huge problem that opioid addiction is often referred to as an epidemic.2

The grim reality of America’s opioid problem has prompted many public officials to search for some type of solution. Although we’ve seen a number of promising initiatives implemented recently, new legislation known as the 21st Century Cures Act could make a momentous difference in the months and years ahead.

What Is the 21st Century Cures Act?

The 21st Century Cures Act is legislation that had been three years in the making when outgoing president Barack Obama signed it into law in December 2016. Passed by a vote of 392 to 26, this legislation will peel back the many layers of bureaucracy through which new drugs must pass before they’re finally approved and reach the market.3 In essence, it means drugs that are approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration and other panels won’t have to cut through quite as much red tape before they reach the hands of those who are most in need of them. Understandably, this is quite a controversial move since the expedited approval process could result in drugs that shouldn’t be approved making it to market or pharmaceutical companies being able to expand the potential uses for their drugs without much clinical evidence. However, there’s more to the ‘Cures Act’ than just getting new drugs to market faster.

Innovation in the health and medicine industries has been extremely slow considering the plethora of advanced technologies at our disposal. One of the biggest obstacles that can deter innovation in these fields has always been funding. Although the United States has been a world-leader when it comes to biomedical advancements, getting research funded has always been extremely slow and tedious, oftentimes even leaving a number of promising projects collecting dust on the shelf. However, the 21st Century Cures Act will allot billions of additional dollars to the National Institutes of Health for new research while also allocating more funding to state governments for the purpose of fighting the opioid addiction epidemic.

Major Gains for Health Technology

Pharmaceutical companies and research groups aren’t the only ones who will benefit from the 21st Century Cures Act, which will also allow for major advancements in healthcare information technology. Part of the $6.3 billion that’s being set aside for this bill will go to agencies who are researching and developing new diagnostic tools as well as to reinforcing Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative, which is leading the charge for technology-driven personalized medical treatment. Meanwhile, the bill promotes what are currently some of the most promising areas of innovation, including stem cell research and regenerative medicine.4

Perhaps most importantly for healthcare IT, the 21st Century Cures Act contains provisions concerning electronic health records, or EHRs. Specifically, the Cures Act aims to ensure optimal levels of patient care by making health records systems seamlessly interoperable and facilitating data exchange between systems.5 By setting up provider directories and creating exchange standards, the Cures Act will allow for each patient’s health records to follow him or her from provider to provider. This will make healthcare much more effective by allowing treatment providers to consider each patient’s personal history and health background in diagnosis and treatment.

The 21st Century Cures Act and the Opioid Epidemic

Clearly, Obama’s signing of the Cures Act is a momentous moment for many areas of the biomedical and health fields. However, many of the bill’s provisions are directly beneficial to addiction treatment and addressing the opioid epidemic, too.

The most obvious benefit of the 21st Century Cures Act is funding. The bill allocates a substantial budget for the advancement of healthcare technologies and biomedical research, but with the stipulation that a portion of that budget will be provided to state governments for the purpose of advancing opioid addiction treatment initiatives.6 Meanwhile, the addiction treatment industry will benefit from changes the bill makes to how pharmaceutical drugs and technologies are approved by the FDA. There are constantly new drugs being developed for use as addiction treatments, so the potential for these drugs to receive priority review and expedited approvals means that these innovative drugs could reach those in need sooner than later.

Take a look at a historic timeline of the opioid epidemic.

Beyond funding and quicker access to innovative drugs, the Cures Act is a bill that promotes research, which is another huge benefit for our fight against the opioid epidemic. It’s only through continued research that new types of addiction treatments and programs can be developed, giving those who suffer from addiction a second chance at life. As well, there’s a strong possibility that the bill’s provisions, involving how electronic health records are stored, accessed and shared, could play a major role in the addiction treatment industry. If incoming patients’ medical histories are more readily accessed via electronic records, addiction treatment providers could better tailor rehabilitative programming to each patient’s needs.

The 21st Century Cures Act is an exciting piece of legislation that creates more effective strategies for medical research and promotes new levels of innovation and efficiency in health-related fields. While the Cures Act won’t immediately solve the problem of the opioid epidemic, the bill provides a number of important resources that put a solution closer to our grasp than ever before.

To learn more about the 21st Century Cures Act, check out the blog post that contains useful information as well as some official statements, published on the official White House website.7



Written by Dane O’Leary