Congress ready to battle growing opioid crisis
Nashville Tennessean USA TODAY NETWORK - TENNESSEE
WASHINGTON – Responding to a public health crisis that shows no signs of letting up, Congress is preparing to move forward on a package of bills aimed at curbing the nation’s growing addiction to painkillers.
A House subcommittee will begin this week considering more than two dozen proposals that would make it easier for those addicted to get treatment, speed up research on opioid abuse and detect and intercept the shipments of opioids such as fentanyl into the United States.
The panel hopes to have the package ready for a vote in the full House before Memorial Day.
In the Senate, another committee led by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., is prepping its own package of bills, which emerged in large part from a series of hearings that included testimony from doctors, public health experts, government officials and the families of overdose victims. The committee hopes to complete its work on the proposals in April.
“Our recommendations will be urgent and bipartisan, and they will come very quickly,” said Alexander, chairman
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of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump is scheduled to address opioid addiction during an appearance in New Hampshire on Monday. Trump ordered his health secretary to declare the opioid crisis a public health emergency last October and signed orders waiving regulations and giving states more flexibility in using federal funds to deal with the crisis.
The renewed focus on opioid addiction comes on the heels of a new report showing that emergency room visits for opioid overdoses rose 30 percent percent in all parts of the United States between July 2016 and September 2017.
In the Midwest, opioid overdoses rose by 70 percent during the same period, according to the study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nearly 64,000 opioid overdose deaths were recorded in the United States in 2016, the highest number recorded in a single year, the agency reported in December.
“It is a public health epidemic of massive proportions,” Alexander said.
House proposals encourage research
Among the bills to be considered Wednesday and Thursday by the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health are proposals to encourage research on new non-addictive pain medications and electronically link all nationwide efforts to combat the opioid crisis.
Other proposals would direct the Food and Drug Administration to set up programs for the safe return of unused opioids, help hospitals establish guidelines for the release of overdose patients and establish centers that would serve as models for comprehensive treatment and recovery.
Another bill, called Jessie’s Law, would make sure medical professionals have access to a consenting patient’s complete health history when making decisions on how to treat that patient. The law is named after Jessie Grubb, a young West Virginia native who died of an overdose of oxycodone pills prescribed by a doctor who was unaware of her history of addiction.
“Collectively, these bipartisan bills have the potential to make a number of meaningful reforms to combat the opioid crisis,” said Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, who is a physician and the health subcommittee’s chairman.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Brentwood, introduced legislation last week that calls for pumping $1 billion into fighting opioid addiction and increasing criminal penalties on manufacturers that don’t report suspicious orders. That bill, however, is not among those that will be considered by the committee this week.
Finding non-addictive medications
The separate legislative package that will be considered by the Senate health committee in the coming weeks is expected to focus on encouraging research into non-addictive painkillers, stopping the influx of illicit drugs into the country and providing additional funding for state grants to help fight opioid addiction.
Alexander said research into finding alternative painkillers could be “the Holy Grail” in combatting opioid abuse.
“The single best way to reduce the dependence on opioids as a painkiller is to find additional painkillers that are not addictive,” said Alexander, whose committee already has held six hearings on the opioids epidemic and plans one more. A bill signed into law by then-President Barack Obama in 2016 provided funding for research on non-addictive painkillers, but the National Institutes of Health has requested more flexibility in using the money to help speed up that research. Alexander and the health committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, already have filed legislation to provide that flexibility.
Alexander said he also expects the committee to pursue legislation giving the Food and Drug Administration new authority to intercept shipments of synthetic opioids like fentanyl, which is 50 times more potent than heroin and often arrives in the United States via mail from Mexico and China. Fentanyl is blamed for much of the recent spike in opioid overdoses.
Another focus of the committee will be additional funding for state grants to help treat opioid addiction. The 2016 legislation included $1 billion in new funding to combat the opioid crisis, and Alexander said he expects additional funding for state opioid grants will be available this year.
Many states already have programs or laws in place to deal with the opioids crisis, such as prescription drug monitoring programs, requirements that opioid prescriptions be made electronically and limits on the amount of opioid prescriptions that can be given to patients.
While the federal government could do a better job of helping states share that kind of information, Alexander said, those kinds or programs are best left to the states.
In fact, solutions to the opioids crisis cannot come just from the federal government but also must involve the states, the medical community, doctors, police departments, treatment centers and even the families of those dealing with addiction, he said.
“This is the most serious public health epidemic any of us have seen in a long time,” Alexander said.