The Surgeon General’s Call to Action: Time to Face Addiction

On Nov. 17, Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, MD, MBA, released the first-ever full Surgeon General report on substance misuse, and it hit close to home for me. a

As many of you know, I’m a person in recovery. It’s a fact that I don’t broadcast, nor do I hide it. I have been sober for over 19 years, due in no small part to my wife Katie, several loving family members, and my faith, which keeps me grounded. I’m one of the lucky ones—blessed if you will—because my recovery has enabled me to become who I am today. I’m also a board member of a not-for-profit organization, Facing Addiction, which seeks solutions to the addiction crisis by unifying the voices of the over 45 million Americans and their families directly impacted by addiction. Clearly, I have a personal interest in this topic.

But if it were just a personal story, I wouldn’t write about it here. This is our nation’s story. Addiction directly impacts one in three households in the United States. According to the Facing Addiction organization, 20.8 million people suffer from a substance use disorder today, with another 23 million in recovery. That is similar to the number of people who live with diabetes and more than 1.5 times the number of people who have cancer.

This issue reverberates through the industry. Approximately 70 percent of those suffering today are employed; most of these have private insurance. Our health plans have been footing the bill for the addiction epidemic for years. The cost of addiction for health plans goes beyond direct treatment; substance misuse also contributes to a variety of chronic conditions. Health plans take it as a given that 5 percent of their members generate 50 percent of medical claims cost, mostly attributable to chronic conditions. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, treating people with chronic conditions accounts for a whopping 86 percent of our nation’s healthcare costs. b

So connect the dots: As the healthcare industry comes under increasing pressure to corral costs through various risk arrangements, the addiction issue increasingly becomes a financial issue for all healthcare stakeholders. The ROI in this area is clear. According to the Surgeon General’s report, implementation of evidence-based interventions can have a benefit of more than $58 for every dollar spent. Every dollar spent on treatment saves $4 in healthcare costs as well as $7 in criminal justice costs. But today, only one in 10 people suffering from addiction receives treatment.

It’s time to address this issue, as a nation. Time to put to bed the ignorance about substance misuse in our society. Time to realize that addiction is a disease, not unlike others we treat with compassion, such as cancer or heart disease. Time to realize, as Dr. Murthy states, that “there is a neurobiological basis for substance use disorders with potential for both recovery and recurrence.” Time to realize that, while opioid misuse is the current hot topic, alcohol misuse has been ravaging our country for years. Time to better ourselves and our healthcare system. Time to face addiction.

From the President’s Desk

Joe Fifer expands on his ideas in his January column.



a. Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health , U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2016.

b. Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.