A bipartisan group of senators urged Congress on Wednesday to attack the epidemic of heroin and painkiller abuse that is afflicting every state, saying a holistic approach is needed to block reckless prescribing, dispose of excess pills and equip first responders with a drug that can reverse overdoses.
Lawmakers said if Congress can approve billions to fight Ebola abroad, it can find money to combat the opioid scourge that’s tearing apart families at home.
“I have never seen anything like this, in terms of the epidemic we are facing,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Lawmakers from both parties used Wednesday’s hearing to push a bill written by Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican, and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat, that would expand prevention and education efforts to combat opioid abuse, while making it easier for criminal justice systems to identify and treat prisoners who are suffering from addiction.
The bill, dubbed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, would help states monitor prescribing practices, expand the number of sites where parents can dispose of unneeded painkillers and distribute more naloxone — a treatment that can reverse the effects of an overdose — to law enforcement agencies and first responders.
“It’s an investment at a time when communities are desperate for resources,” Mr. Portman testified.
State and federal policymakers have been scrambling to deal with widespread abuse of opioid painkillers like OxyContin and also heroin, which affect the body similar ways.
While painkillers are a godsend for those who are truly suffering, they’ve become a “nightmare” for others, according to Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican.
“In some cases, those addicted to painkillers turn to heroin to get a similar high, because recently it’s become cheaper and more easily available,” he said.
He said the Obama administration has failed to secure the Mexican border, allowing drug cartels grab a foothold in the U.S., and that its lenient posture toward marijuana leaves open a potential pathway to heroin addiction.
Democrats, meanwhile, said Republican who want to help addicts shouldn’t be scrapping Obamacare and its health coverage provisions.
Yet overall, lawmakers pledged themselves to a team effort. Already, Congress used an end-of-year spending bill to boost funding for opioid-abuse prevention to $123 billion, or nearly three times last year’s levels.
The Portman-Whitehouse bill would connect those dollars with policy, authorizing effective uses for the appropriation or any future funding to combat the epidemic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month said the rate of opioid overdose deaths from prescription drugs and heroin hit record levels in 2014 — from 7.9 per 100,000 people in 2013 to 9.0 per 100,000 in 2014, an “alarming” 14 percent increase.
The epidemic has gripped wide swaths of the country, particularly in rural areas, and more than half of all Americans say they or someone they know has abused prescription painkillers, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey.
“This disease knows no racial boundaries, it knows no income boundaries, it knows no partisan boundaries,” Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, testified Wednesday. “Everybody’s in, and I think we have to have a more honest discussion about what led us into this mess.”
He said the epidemic is coming to a head because painkillers were over-prescribed for years, including forms that can be crushed and snorted.
Even as his state removes the stigma around addiction, the governor said there are longer waiting lines for treatment because of pent-up demand.
“We need financial help,” he said. “The states cannot do this alone.”