Published January 10, 2017

It started when Vanessa was 17. She was in a car accident, and a doctor prescribed OxyContin, a powerful opioid painkiller. By the time Vanessa was 19, she was addicted. Soon, she moved on to injecting drugs.

“I wish I would have known the risks of getting addicted,” she said. “I was being prescribed a lot more than I could have ever possibly needed.”

Vanessa is one of millions of people who have become swept up in an opioid abuse epidemic. More than 30,000 people died from an opioid overdose in 2015, breaking a record set the previous year.

And the epidemic is only growing. A recent report released by the U.S. Surgeon General, Facing Addiction in America, sheds light on the addiction crisis, finding that nearly 21 million people in the U.S. are living with a substance use disorder—more than 1.5 times the number of people with cancer.

The evidence is clear: a substance use disorder is not a moral failing, but a chronic medical condition, much like diabetes or high blood pressure. Repeated use of addictive substances like opioids, such as heroin or OxyContin, can permanently alter the brain.

But, like all medical problems, with proper guidance from a healthcare professional, substance use disorders can be treated. While a healthcare professional can develop the best plan for an individual, most treatment plans combine withdrawal care, support groups, individual therapy, and a number of social and lifestyle changes. In some cases, medication can also help. Treating related health problems, such as depression or Hepatitis C, is also an important part of recovery.

A key way to combat the substance abuse epidemic is to prevent people from becoming addicted in the first place. In Pennsylvania, Capital Blue Cross has launched an educational program to teach kids about the hazards of drug use. Capital Blue Cross also sponsors a radio show about treating drug abuse.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts is targeting opioid addiction through its Prescription Pain Medication Safety Program. Doctors, pharmacists and health plan representatives closely monitor opioids prescriptions to see that they adhere to evidence-based practices. And it’s working – in three years, the program has reduced opioid prescription by 21.5 million.

Jason, who, like Vanessa became addicted to prescription opioids, believes that sharing his story is an important part of helping others. A few years ago, Jason had lost everything due to his addiction and was living in his mother’s house. “My whole life revolved around getting high,” he says. “I couldn’t wake up in the morning unless I had a pain pill.”

But Jason was able to get and stay clean thanks to a recovery program. He wants to help prevent others from using, and let other addicts know that they too can stop. “I want to be one of the ones speaking up and saying, “I went through it. I recovered and so can you,’” he said.

Learn more about how Blue Cross and Blue Shield companies are addressing substance abuse disorder in communities across the country:

The ‘Spotlight on Health’ series provides a forum for expert perspectives on the top five conditions affecting America’s health today, according to the Blue Cross Blue Shield Health Index. Substance Abuse ranks #5 out of 200 conditions.

The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association is an association of 36 independent, locally operated Blue Cross and/or Blue Shield companies.