Congress Is Wising Up to America's Opioid Crisis

Prince will be remembered as a legend who became so much more than a mere mortal. Which makes it ever the more painful to learn that he may have left our world as part of a growing statistic.

In 2014, reports RollCall, 28,647 Americans died from opioid-related complications. The following year in Maine alone, the state reported 272 opioid overdose deaths. But despite these figures, in recent years the number of opioid prescriptions has continued to rise unchecked. Thankfully this may change come Friday.

Following calls from almost every sector of society (including the Obama administration), House Republicans are scheduled to vote on 18 bills this week that will address the mounting opioid addiction epidemic facing the country. These bills are expected to receive almost unanimous bipartisan support. (Three already passed this Tuesday with just one dissenting vote.)

The proposed bills will address several crucial facets of this national problem. Some of these will include:

  • Measures that will make it easier for doctors to treat patients addicted to opioids.
  • Greater authority among law enforcement officers to obtain interdicts for drug trafficking.
  • More protection for veterans and children affected by the epidemic.
  • Federal government-led studies to evaluate the state’s capacity for treating opioid addiction, which will include an assessment of Good Samaritan laws often used to shield criminal or civil liability health care providers and law enforcement officials who treat opioid addicts with “overdose reversal” drugs.
  • The introduction of expert advisory committees to oversee the approval of opioid products and drug labels as well as expansion of residential treatment programs for pregnant and postpartum opioid addicts.

Earlier today the House voted 255-163 to approve rules that will clear the way for the passage of some of these bills. If/when approved on Friday, these bills will be packaged together and amended into the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), which the Senate passed two months ago despite this glaring omission in the legislation. Once approved by House and Senate, the package will be sent to President Obama for final approval.

The Obama administration issued a statement in anticipation of this on Tuesday.

“These trends will not change by simply authorizing new grant programs, studies and reports,” read the statement, which was critical of the bills' failure to include the Democrats' proposed measure of $600 million in emergency funding for the epidemic. “Congressional action is needed to fund the tools communities need to confront this epidemic and accelerate important policies like training health care providers on appropriate opioid prescribing, an essential component of this effort.”

Several members of the House addressed the bills in the press conference on Capitol Hill earllier today. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) gave these remarks:

[Yesterday] I met with the family of Jason Simcakoski. Jason was born and raised in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, a place I've been to hundreds of times. After high school, he entered the Marines. He reached the rank of corporal. He was a son, he was a husband and he was a father to a precious little girl. Two years ago, Jason entered the VA Medical Center in Tomah to be treated for anxiety. He never went home. Under medical supervision—or the appearance of it—he died of an overdose from opioid painkillers. We now know that Jason's death can and should have been prevented.
No one should seek help and receive mistreatment in return. No one. So Jason's family pushed for reforms that will make the VA improve its practices in the way it monitors prescriptions. Yesterday, the Promise Act passed the House. Jason's family was there in the gallery to watch it. It is one of 18 initiatives that we are acting on to address the opioid epidemic that is sweeping across this country. ...
Many states have taken action, but this threat also requires a national response. So whether it is protecting infants, whether it is stopping kingpins or pushers or making better use of data, we're going to take all of these ideas, pass them through the House, go into a conference committee with the Senate and we intend to put a bill on the President's desk fast. This is not just about process. This is not just about legislation. This is about saving people's lives. It is about honoring those who were taken too soon. It is about honoring those who want a second chance, who need and deserve a second chance. And it's also about protecting the next generation. Those of us who are raising the next generation care so deeply about this. That is what this week is about.

Rep. Susan Brooks (R-IN), a sponsor of one of the bills, H.R. 4641, which seeks to establish an interagency task force to update best practices for pain management and prescribing pain medication, discussed the importance of "trying to change the culture in the country of the prescribing practice." She mentioned the work of the Indiana-based nonprofit Overdose Lifeline, which is raising funds to make sure that first responders are equipped with naloxone overdose reversal kits and properly trained to provide the appropriate care to overdose victims. 

Brooks was blunt about the urgency of the nation's legislators getting it right on the opioid epidemic: "The dying is happening every hour, every day, all across this country."


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