- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Senate Democrats introduced a bill Wednesday seeking $45 billion to combat the opioid epidemic, laying down their marker for new resources a day before President Trump outlines his strategy for coping with the crisis.

The $45 billion is orders of magnitude more than Congress has allocated right now, and suggests a growing urgency on Capitol Hill to ask taxpayers to contribute more to the national scourge.

“The Trump administration’s plan to address the opioid epidemic has been little more than empty words and broken promises,” said Sen. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat. “What we need to fight this scourge is continued and reliable long-term investments in prevention, treatment, recovery and monitoring.”

Democrats said they used $45 billion because it was the figure GOP leaders included for anti-opioid abuse funding in their failed Obamacare repeal bill.

Mr. Trump is expected to declare the epidemic a national emergency on Thursday, triggering the waiver of federal rules that have restricted how much federal assistance can be used to cover treatment options.

But Democrats say the declaration will ring hollow unless Congress invests taxpayer dollars into efforts to stem drug overdoses that, according to estimates, killed more than 60,000 people last year.

Congress last tackled the issue during the 2016 campaign, approving a pair of high-profile bills that expanded treatment options and the use of overdose-reversing drugs, while doling out $1 billion in state grants to combat the issue.

Democrats said that was a down payment on what’s needed.

“There just needs to be a lot more,” said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., New Jersey Democrat.

All sides say the crisis hasn’t been reined in.

“It is one of the few public health problems that is getting worse instead of better,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Neil Doherty, a deputy assistant administrator at the Drug Enforcement Administration, said the U.S. is seeing a “fundamental shift” from prescription-driven addiction toward cheaper-to-obtain heroin, exacerbating the problem as deadly synthetic fentanyl floods the illicit drug market.

Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said his agency will promote pain treatments that aren’t addictive and new therapies to wean people off opioids, while combatting the stigma around those who rely on medications like methadone or buprenorphine to treat addiction.

“We should not consider people who hold jobs, re-engage with their families and regain control over their lives through treatment that uses medications to be addicted,” Dr. Gottlieb told the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday.

Committee Chairman Greg Walden said the DEA also needs to be more responsive to congressional requests for information about the scourge so lawmakers can forge useful policy. He said he’s been waiting for six months for the DEA to name companies that supplied millions of pain pills to pharmacies in West Virginia.

“I’m going to be very blunt: My patience is wearing thin. Our requests for data from the DEA are met with delay, excuses and, frankly, inadequate response. People are dying. Lives and families are ruined,” Mr. Walden told Mr. Doherty.

Lawmakers are still sizing up a high-profile report by The Washington Post and CBS’ “60 Minutes” that an industry-friendly 2016 law made it “virtually impossible” for the DEA to suspend orders of narcotics that could fall into the hands of corrupt doctors or illicit pharmacies.

However, a Democratic sponsor of the 2016 law cast doubt on those conclusions, saying the DEA sharply reduced the number of suspension orders against opioid manufacturers even before Congress passed the measure.

Rep. Peter Welch, Vermont Democrat, said suspension orders dropped from 65 in 2011 to five in 2015 before rising to nine in 2016 — the year that Congress passed its controversial law.

Therefore, Mr. Welch said, Congress passed the law “after there had been already a decline in the use of that tool — one of many tools — by the DEA.”

“That is absolutely correct, sir,” Mr. Doherty said.

Rep. Ryan A. Costello, Pennsylvania Republican, asked Mr. Doherty if there was a significant policy decision that would have resulted in the change.

“Not to my knowledge, sir,” he replied.

Mr. Doherty also said the law “did not stop DEA from doing its job in the diversion space.”

Mr. Walden said the significant drop in suspension orders at the height of the epidemic demands a fuller explanation, however, and will continue to be a part of his wide-ranging investigation into efforts to avoid the diversion of opioid pills to the illicit market.

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