- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Sen. Rob Portman on Wednesday said he will push legislation to crack down on synthetic opioids that are streaming into the U.S. through the postal system, as Ohio and surrounding states grapple with an avalanche of overdoses.

Mr. Portman, a Republican facing re-election, said even though President Obama just signed major legislation to fight the prescription painkiller and heroin epidemic, the U.S. must do more to stem the flow of dangerous synthetics like fentanyl and carfentanil from China, India and other countries.

“This stuff comes in by U.S. mail,” Mr. Portman said at the Price Hill firehouse in Cincinnati, where officials have blamed the synthetics for an astonishing spate of overdoses — 174 in six days.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection often doesn’t receive electronic data on items from foreign postal systems in advance, according to Mr. Portman, unlike packages arriving through private carriers such as FedEx and UPS.

He said his bill would require foreign shippers to describe who is sending packages through U.S. mail, and where the stuff is going, before the packages enter the country. That way, agents could better target illegal drug shipments.

“It will really help to cut down on this poison coming into our communities,” Mr. Portman said.

He plans to drop the bill once Congress returns from its summer recess, though his office said it is still finalizing the text and reaching out for co-sponsors.

The U.S. Postal Service said it “has actively sought to begin the process of exchanging electronic customs data with several key postal operators,” though it said it would be inappropriate to comment on Mr. Portman’s proposal because it hasn’t seen legislative language yet.

“However, we share the senator’s goals of keeping dangerous drugs out of the hands of the American public and maintaining the safety of our nation’s mail system,” spokesman David Partenheimer said.

The rate of opioid overdose deaths from prescription drugs and heroin hit record levels in 2014, killing nearly 30,000, and more people are dying from the epidemic than from automobile accidents in some places. Pop music legend Prince died of an opioid fentanyl overdose in the spring, raising the visibility of the issue.

Mr. Portman co-authored a comprehensive opioids bill that Congress sent to Mr. Obama in July. It pushes alternatives to incarceration for those addicted to opioids and expands access to naloxone, a drug that can counteract the effects of an overdose.

While officials rush to implement it, Appalachian states continue to be hit hard by the epidemic. Huntington, West Virginia, saw 27 heroin overdoses within a four-hour span earlier this month, and Ohio and Kentucky have been dogged by a marked uptick this summer in fentanyl-related incidents.

Only several of the most recent Cincinnati overdoses were fatal, Mr. Portman said, namely because first responders have been able to administer naloxone, which is also known by its brand name, Narcan.

“They do more Narcan runs then they do fire runs now, and I find this all over the state,” he said of Price Hill firefighters.

Democrats sought an extra $600 million to deal with the crisis earlier this year, though GOP leaders rejected their demands, saying there is plenty of money in the pipeline to fight addiction, including $581 million in next year’s health spending bill.

Mr. Portman and two other Republicans facing re-election, Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Mark Kirk of Illinois, voted in support of the cash infusion, though it fell short of the votes needed to advance.

Mr. Portman has built a comfortable lead over his Democratic challenger, former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, according to the latest polls, though Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is leading GOP rival Donald Trump at the top of the ticket, putting pressure on downballot Republicans.

The Strickland campaign has painted Mr. Portman as “hypocritical” on opioids, saying he voted last year against the catch-all spending package that would fund efforts to break addiction.

In the meantime, Mr. Obama has been using fiscal 2016 funds to target the epidemic through grants to specific states, though he still wants $1.1 billion more from Congress to deal with the problem.

On Wednesday the administration doled out more than $50 million to 44 states, four tribes and the District of Columbia to combat the epidemic through better prescribing practices, more treatment options and broader use of naloxone.

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