By Sandy K. Johnson

Deaths from opioid overdoses are on a par with mortality rates at the height of the AIDS epidemic, the White House director of drug policy says.

“This is one of the greatest public health crises that we’ve ever had,” Michael Botticelli told a National Press Foundation fellowship. In 2014, almost 48,000 Americans died from opioid overdose – triple the number in 2000.

He said he reviewed mortality data and found that opioids death rates are equivalent to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s before a successful drug regimen eased deaths from that disease.

There is a direct correlation between the number of prescriptions written by doctors for the powerful painkillers and the overdose rate, Botticelli said. He believes new federal guidelines to physicians should help balance overprescribing versus people who truly need pain relief.

He said 7.9 million teens and adults need treatment for drug abuse, but only 20 percent of them receive it. “This has been underfunded and undertreated issue for a long time,” Botticelli said. People often only get treatment when they are arrested and wind up in the criminal justice system.

With misuse on the rise, he said the Food and Drug Administration has signaled it will weigh harm as part of its approval process. But he also said that by law no one can interfere with the FDA’s process for evaluating new drugs.