- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Senate Health Committee advanced opioid legislation Tuesday that would facilitate the government’s ability to seize and destroy deadly fentanyl as it comes into the U.S. and speed safer painkillers to market to try to curtail the spread of addition.

Dubbed the Opioid Crisis Response Act of 2018, the bill packages 40 different proposals from lawmakers determined to attack the crisis from several angles — from assisting children who have been traumatized by their parents’ drug use to requiring certain opioids be sold in pre-set blister packs so patients only take what they need.

Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander said the effort, which received unanimous support from the panel, showed a rare area of bipartisanship to make a dent in the problem.

“Ultimately, it’s not something that can be solved by an agency in Washington, D.C.,” the Tennessee Republican said. “What the federal government can do is create an environment so that everyone — judges, mayors, counselors, police officers, Drug Enforcement Administration agents, doctors, nurses, parents, pharmacists, and hospitals — can succeed in fighting the crisis.”

Mr. Alexander said he hopes for action on the Senate floor by the summer.

The Senate bill is one piece of a government-wide effort to rein in the opioid scourge, which President Trump is treating as a public health emergency.

The issue affects every corner of the U.S. and is killing tens of thousand of people per year, as deadly synthetics like fentanyl flood the heroin market from labs overseas.

Under the new bill, the Food and Drug Administration would have greater authority to seize and destroy suspicious drug shipments, rather than sending them back to bad actors who often just try to slip the parcels back into the U.S.

The legislation also would give the National Institutes of Health funding authority to focus on developing non-addictive painkillers, and would expedite FDA review of such drugs.

The bill would help states address opioid withdrawal symptoms in infants born to addicted mothers and bolster the number of mental-health workers who can address drug abuse in schools and other settings.

Some Democrats on the panel said Congress should be doing even more.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, championed her proposal to spend $100 billion over 10 years on the crisis, though she did not demand a vote Tuesday.

Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, failed to attach his plan to hold opioid makers criminally liable for downplaying the addictive nature of their products and fueling the crisis.

“We have not said to them, ‘When did your learn, when did you know that the product you were producing was addictive and would kill people?’” Mr. Sanders said.

His plan, which also would impose big fines on companies that engage in shady marketing, earned eight “yes” votes from Democrats on the GOP-led committee. But it didn’t win over any Republicans or Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the panel, who said she supports the spirit of the bill but could not vote for it just yet.

She said she wanted to make sure the language would not infringe on legitimate opioid prescriptions for patients.

There was still plenty for senators to crow about in what did pass.

Sen. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat from hard-hit New Hampshire, highlighted efforts to create comprehensive opioid centers that offer a full suite of recovery services, from medication-assisted treatment (MAT) to counseling to job training, and allow recent medical-school graduates prescribe MAT right away.

Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, highlighted her work with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, West Virginia Republican, and a trio of Senate Democrats to let hospice workers dispose of unused prescription drugs after a patient dies or a medication expires. Right now, staff are not allowed to dispose of unused pills, raising the risk they could be sold or abused.

And Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, highlighted his push to codify in law a 2016 regulation that lifted the cap on how many patients a qualified physician can treat with buprenorphine from 100 to 275.

Prescribing buprenorphine for opioid addiction was a relatively new practice when Congress established the program in 2000, so lawmakers wanted to tread carefully by capping the number of patients a doctor could treat, while empowering the Department Health and Human Services to lift the cap in the future.

Years later, the administration and senators say there are long waiting lists for doctors who’d reached their 100-patient limit.

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