Every day there's another headline about the opioid epidemic, and the huge numbers of Americans dying every day. As of this month, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death for people under 50, with the rate escalating faster than ever.
A number of stories recently have compared this crisis to the height of the AIDS epidemic. I couldn't speak up then -- I was a child. But I can speak up now, especially since then I've become one of the people who have fought addiction. My drug of choice wasn't opioids but that doesn't matter; I stand with everyone who has fought this battle.
So that's why I went to a protest at the Robert S. Vance Federal Building and Courthouse last night. Held by a non-partisan group called Birmingham Indivisible, last night was part of a five day, 24-hour a day action urging Alabama senators to vote against the proposed health care bill.
Each day there's a theme, and yesterday it was children's health. So maybe I was totally in line with the theme when I arrived with my sign to give voice to those of us in recovery. But maybe not, because substance abuse and dependence is a children's issue too. (For instance, every 19 minutes in America a baby is born addicted to opioids, and that's just one example.)
Back to the steps of the federal building, where protesters were asking for one thing: for our senators to vote "no" on this health care bill that could leave 22 million without insurance. A number that sticks in my head for many reasons, including how close it is to another number: about 22 million Americans struggle with substance abuse.
The numbers aren't looking good.
Even with access to excellent medical and supportive health care services, substance abuse is a devastatingly difficult problem to treat. An NPR story today addressed the fact that lawmakers from opioid-ravaged states have spoken out against the proposed health care bill, which if passed, would greatly impact Medicaid. This is an excerpt, featuring perspective from Michael Botticelli, the last drug czar:
"It's really hard to understate the dramatic increases we're going to see in overdose deaths," said Botticelli, who now heads the Grayken Center for Addiction Medicine at Boston Medical Center.
In 2015 (the last year for which data has been released) 34 percent of people receiving treatment for opioid addiction were covered by Medicaid, according to an analysis by Frank.
"You know, we're in the greatest health crisis that we've had since the height of the AIDS epidemic and we've seen the dramatic gains that we've been able to make and that people are able to make with Medicaid coverage," said Botticelli.
So here we are, on the steps of the federal building in downtown Birmingham, asking to be heard. Sharing our health care stories. One of the organizers spoke to having had a stroke five years ago, and these changes being life and death. Another friend told me about her four children who depend on Medicaid. We all have a story.
The one that I share the most is the one around addiction. Because when you've looked into the eyes of a mother who has lost her son or daughter, when you sit in 12-step rooms and hear people fighting to make it through the next 24-hours, it's hard not to be outraged. When you read the headlines and the obituaries every day, it's hard not to be outraged. Outraged that in the face of this crisis -- epidemic -- our legislators are proposing such devastating cuts.
I know how difficult addiction is to fight even when you come from a place of privilege. This disease doesn't discriminate. Though there's a growing movement of people speaking up about their losses and experiences, the stigma remains. Like this Guardian story says, "drug users have long been one of the most demonised and marginalised groups in society."
So that's why I went to the federal building with a sign that says "Recovery = Resistance: We're already fighting for our lives. Don't make us fight for our healthcare." It's us.
It's all of us.
Last night the organizers urged us: when it comes to making your voice heard, pressing "like" on a post isn't enough. We must call our legislators and make our voices heard. And I believe we need to speak up on behalf of people who can't.
ACT UP, the revolutionary grassroots group that fought for funding during the height of the AIDS epidemic, says Silence = Death.
Silence = Death here too.
What are you going to do?