- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Democratic negotiators threatened to oppose an emerging plan to address the nation’s prescription opioid and heroin epidemic Wednesday after Republicans rebuffed their attempts to add nearly $1 billion to the deal, raising doubts about yet another effort to address a public health crisis in jeopardy.

Unlike in previous fights, notably Congress’ attempt to address the Zika virus, Democrats said they would pay for their $920 million request by adjusting certain Medicare payments and cracking down on fraud in the program.

They said their decision to use offsets that have received bipartisan support in the past gave the GOP “no excuse” but to support their request for opioids money.

“We cannot and should not approve any conference report that doesn’t provide funding,” said Rep. Frank Pallone, New Jersey Democrat.

Yet Republicans who control each chamber rejected a pair of Democratic amendments to include the funding, saying Congress has already freed up money to get the fight started and that it is time to forge ahead.

“Money helps, and over the last two years, Congress has increased funding for opioids by seven times,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican.

Conferees from both chambers are trying to square a comprehensive Senate plan with a series of House bills to to combat the opioid scourge, which reaches every corner of the country and affecting Americans regardless of race, gender or income.

The rate of opioid overdose deaths from prescription drugs and heroin hit record levels in 2014, killing nearly 30,000, and recent polling shows two-thirds of Americans want Congress to do more to address the crisis.

“There is not a state or a district that isn’t facing this. We’re in this together,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vermont Democrat.

Both sides say they’ve got the policy right, bolstering therapeutic alternatives and expanding access to overdose-reversing drugs in place of a lock-‘em-up approach to drug addiction.

Yet the funding standoff is threatening what should have been a feel-good moment for a divided Congress in a bitter election year. While the opioids package can still make it out of the conference, Democrats may choose to filibuster the package on the Senate floor.

Last week, Senate Democrats blocked a $1.1 billion measure to address another health crisis, the Zika virus, saying it shortchanges the effort, robs from Obamacare and Ebola funding and should have funded Planned Parenthood.

Senate Minority Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, has signaled that Democrats plan to filibuster a redo vote in the coming days, leaving the effort in limbo, and Republicans are waiting to see if he will employ similar tactics to pursue a better deal on opioids.

Earlier this year, Senate Republicans rejected a Democratic bid to throw $600 million in emergency spending at the opioids problem, saying opioid money should compete with other programs as part of the annual appropriations process that is still unfolding.

The House Appropriations Committee released a health and human services bill Wednesday that provides $581 million to combat opioid addiction in fiscal 2017, including $500 million for a new grant programs to the states.

Rep. Fred Upton, Michigan Republican and chairman of the opioids conference, pointed to that cash infusion and complained that Democrats hadn’t previewed their request for $920 million until they dispatched a letter to Republicans on Tuesday.

Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, shot back, saying the GOP is trying to put out a wildfire with “a thimble full of water.”

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