The Giving Pledge, an organization that supports important causes through significant charitable contributions, added a new member to its ranks. MacKenzie Bezos has joined the group of prominent philanthropists.
Through the generosity of the organization’s members, its goal is to significantly impact seemingly impossible problems. Hopefully, that will now include what is the worst health care crisis in recent U.S. history: drug addiction.
Overdosing is the leading cause of death in Americans under 50, but despite its parabolic rise, private philanthropy for addiction research has paled in comparison to other research initiatives. According to 2018 estimates from the National Institutes of Health, cancer research received more than three times the funds that addiction research garnered.
Government officials at every level have scrambled to find pathways to prevention and treatment, and to their credit, have made some inroads. However, it is imperative that the private sector take leadership in this complex problem.
Health care policy has all too often discriminated against those with addiction issues, and insurance companies have been slow to provide coverage for people suffering from substance abuse. Also, many federal and state policies focus on an arrest-and-incarcerate approach, and thus often ignore root causes of many addiction issues, such as family history and child abuse.
There’s no question that philanthropy can address an epidemic of this scale and complexity. At the peak of the AIDS crisis when some of the public sector was not responding, private philanthropy took the lead in filling the gap. Treatment innovations and national policy changes followed, and today the age-adjusted HIV death rate has dropped by more than 80 percent since the epidemic’s peak not long ago.
This same effort is needed if we want to change the trajectory of the substance abuse epidemic. Private philanthropy can make a real difference in advancing our society and the world.
This crisis also has underscored how addiction care isn’t supported by research. Because there is little knowledge of how best to measure treatment progress, it can be difficult to make critical decisions about when to extend care or introduce a new strategy. The result is often one-size-fits-all service, or if treatment is personalized, it is often based on clinical intuition without the benefit of research. Neither of these help address the 9 out of 10 addicts who will re-enter treatment.
This is not to say there is no addiction-focused research — rather, it is a prohibitively lengthy process. Because today’s research is conducted in highly controlled settings, it often takes a decade or more before important clinical findings can be implemented into real-world care delivery.
But it doesn’t have to be this way: addiction treatment learning laboratories can be embedded with treatment and recovery centers. In other words, we can help millions of Americans by integrating research and clinical work in one setting. This would translate basic science discoveries into actionable treatment methodologies that can be shared with and help advance the work of addiction professionals nationwide. This type of change would bring addiction care and treatment up to the standard of other, less-controversial epidemics such as diabetes and cancer.
To address this major epidemic it is imperative that prominent philanthropists step up to the plate to support new and innovative approaches to treatment including integrating research into the recovery process.
Andrew Drazan is chief executive and co-founder of Wellbridge Addiction Treatment and Research in Calverton, which is a joint venture with Northwell Health and the Engel Burman Group.