Drug overdoses kill more people in the United States than guns or car accidents and are the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, seventy-two thousand people in the United States died from drug overdoses in 2017, compared to sixty-four thousand in 2016.
Despite this growing substance-abuse epidemic, private philanthropy has been barely visible when it comes to addressing the crisis and supporting new approaches to addiction treatment based on scientific research. This is especially surprising given that substance abuse is having such a broad impact among individuals and families of means.
While the University of Indiana Lilly Family School of Philanthropy's recently issued Philanthropy Outlook projects that individual charitable giving will increase 2.1 percent in 2019 and 3.4 percent in 2020, there is no reason to believe that a meaningful portion of these dollars will be directed to addiction treatment and research. At the same time, many foundations have made the strategic decision to focus on the "upstream" social and economic factors that lead to addiction.
The reality is that drug addiction has become the deadliest public health crisis in recent U.S. history, and the funding gap that exists between the problem and solutions to address the problem will not be closed without significant private funding.
Why Private Sector Giving?
It's imperative that the private sector become a major contributor to solutions aimed at addressing the substance abuse epidemic. The reasons are varied, but key among them is that healthcare policy too often discriminates against those with addiction issues, while insurance companies have been reluctant to provide coverage for people who are addicted. Moreover, many federal and state agencies are focused on an "arrest and incarcerate" approach and often ignore the root causes of addiction such as family history, child abuse, and so on.
While there is good evidence that policies and programs can be effective in preventing alcohol/drug abuse and in supporting recovery, successful efforts to do so have not garnered nearly enough support. The Affordable Care Act has helped by mandating that more public and private insurers provide substance abuse services as a core health benefit, but it's not nearly enough.
The good news is that some major healthcare systems are stepping up their efforts to address the problem. Northwell Health, the largest healthcare provider in New York State and one of the largest in the U.S., is offering substance use prevention treatment through its integrated network and is supporting unique, standalone ventures focused on incubating innovative care models. Yet for these ventures to succeed, there must be private-sector funders willing to help support them.
There's no question that the philanthropic community has successfully responded in the past to various epidemics. At the peak of the AIDS crisis in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the public sector was simply not responding effectively to the crisis, private philanthropy took the lead in filling the funding gap. The result was a proactive response that included innovative treatments and policies that successfully stemmed the tide and began to reverse the course of the epidemic.
Integrating Research and Treatment
While there are numerous areas where both individual and institutional philanthropic support can make a difference in addressing the substance abuse epidemic, key among them is the dramatic need for more research. The fact of the matter is that there is very limited funding for addiction research — especially when compared to other chronic illnesses. According to 2018 estimates from the National Institutes of Health, funds for cancer research were available at a level 3.3 times that available for addiction.
Just as importantly, there is a major gap between research conducted in a controlled laboratory setting and research done in treatment centers where doctors and researchers can collaborate and interact with patients in the same real-world setting.
Our goal at Wellbridge is to address this issue by accelerating the translation of basic science discoveries into real-time, actionable treatments that help advance the work of addiction professionals nationwide. Think of it as approaching addiction in a modern way by aligning best practices in a manner similar to how the healthcare industry addresses chronic illnesses such as diabetes and cancer.
If this and other important initiatives are to succeed, however, the philanthropic community must come together as it did during the AIDS epidemic. Institutional and individual philanthropists are needed to drive a proactive and comprehensive effort that will transform our approach to substance abuse, including helping our healthcare systems better prevent and treat addiction.
Private philanthropy has an amazing opportunity to impact the trajectory of the substance abuse epidemic. It is an opportunity for philanthropy to make a real difference and, as it did in the 1980s and "90s, again play a major role in improving the health and well-being of the American people and the global population more generally.
Andrew Drazan is CEO and co-founder of Wellbridge Addiction Treatment and Research in Calverton, New York. Wellbridge seeks to be an epicenter for the study and treatment of addiction and is one of the first facilities to incorporate an onsite research center.