Lack of Treatment Access Blamed for Higher Overdose Death Rates

July 20, 2022 – As drug overdoses reach record highs across the U.S., disparities in access to treatment have led to higher death rates among Black Americans and Native Americans, according to a new CDC report.

In 2020, drug overdose deaths increased 30% in the U.S., as compared with 2019. Overdose death rates increased 44% for Black people, 39% for American Indian and Alaska Native people, 22% for white people, and 21% for Hispanic people – all at historic highs.

Overdose rates were higher in counties with higher income inequality, particularly among Black people and Hispanic people, where the rates were more than two times as high in areas with more income inequality.

Opioid overdose rates were also higher in areas with more opioid treatment programs than average, particularly in Black and Native American communities, which the study authors said shows that people face other barriers to treatment access, such as stigma, lack of health insurance, and lack of transportation.

“The increase in overdose deaths and widening disparities are alarming,” Debra Houry, MD, acting principal deputy director of the CDC and director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, said in a statement.

“Overdose deaths are preventable, and we must redouble our efforts to make overdose prevention a priority,” she said. “Providing tailored tools and resources to combat overdose and address underlying risk factors will ultimately help reduce health disparities and save lives.”

The report, which looked at overdose death rates in 25 states and the District of Columbia, showed other major findings. In 2020, Black Americans ages 15 to 24 had the largest increase in overdose death rates, at 86%, as compared with 2019. The overdose death rate among Black men ages 65 and older was nearly seven times that of white men in the same age group.

What’s more, overdose death rates for American Indian and Alaska Native women ages 25 to 44 were nearly two times that of white women in the same age group. Among white people, ages 15 to 24 had the largest relative rate increase, at 34%.

The report also analyzed drug overdose death rates by treatment access and income inequality. In particular, a history of substance use was common, but a history of receiving substance abuse treatment wasn’t, the CDC reported. About 1 in 12 Black people and 1 in 10 American Indian, Alaska Native, and Hispanic people had received substance use treatment. White people were nearly twice as likely to have received treatment as Black people.

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted access to prevention, treatment, harm reduction, and recovery support services, which likely added to the rise in overdose deaths, the CDC said.

The recent increase in deaths was largely driven by fentanyl, a potent opioid that has contaminated the drug supply, CDC said.

Nearly 92,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2020. Overdose deaths have risen further since then, surpassing 100,000 for the first time in 2021, according to The Wall Street Journal. The rates are likely even higher for 2022.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted long-neglected disparities in access to and provision of health care among AI/AN, Black and Hispanic persons,” the study authors wrote. “More stigmatization, criminalization, and lack of access to evidence-based treatments among racial/ethnic minority groups with substance abuse disorders have been well-documented.”

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