The Obama administration has awarded $94 million in Obamacare funds to health centers on the front lines of the prescription opioid and heroin epidemic, one day after Democrats complained that a Senate-passed bill to combat the crisis lacked necessary funding.
The Health and Human Services Department said Friday it will distribute the money to 271 centers in 45 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico so that grantees can enlist 800 doctors or other health providers to treat 124,000 new patients.
Health centers will use the money to screen patients for drug abuse and administer medication-based treatments to wean addicts off their habit, while training health professionals on how to properly prescribe highly addictive painkillers.
HHS said unintentional overdose deaths from prescription painkillers nearly quadruped from 1999 to 2013, and heroin-related deaths increased 39 percent between 2012 and 2013.
In some places, the epidemic is killing more people than car accidents do. And it is striking every corner of the U.S. with no regard to age, gender or socioeconomic status.
“The opioid epidemic is one of the most pressing public health issues in the United States today,” Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said.
HHS committed the funds one day after the Senate passed a bill to address the epidemic on a near-unanimous vote, despite an outcry from Democrats who said Congress failed to free up enough money to make a real dent in the crisis.
Republican lawmakers had rejected an amendment by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire Democrat, that would have attached $600 million in emergency funding to the bill, which passed on a 94-1 vote Thursday.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said Congress set aside $400 million last year, or enough to carry out the bill’s policies, and that lawmakers can free up more cash during this year’s appropriations process.
Dubbed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, the bipartisan legislation 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, among other reforms.
Senators pressured House leaders this week to take up and pass the legislation so that Mr. Obama can sign it into law.