- The Washington Times - Friday, June 22, 2018

The House passed a massive opioid bill Friday to expand treatment options, block the flow of deadly fentanyl into the U.S. and reduce the number of addictive pills in circulation — an unusual display of bipartisanship in a bitter election year, even as Democrats grumbled that GOP leaders still aren’t doing enough.

Approved 396-14, the package combined more than 50 individual bills and cleared the way for Senate action and a stamp of approval from President Trump, who has called opioid abuse a public health emergency.

Rep. Greg Walden, Oregon Republican and Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, said the bipartisan effort signals that Congress is serious about reversing the prescription painkiller and heroin crisis, even if the latest bill isn’t a cure-all.

“We will be at this for a while longer,” Mr. Walden said.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy cast the bill in personal terms, recounting how his press secretary’s brother died of an opioid overdose, while the White House said the legislation supported its own effort to treat opioids abuse as a public health emergency.

“President Donald J. Trump and his Administration’s ongoing work to tackle this important issue could not be possible without complementary legislation from our allies in Congress,” said White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Opioid overdoses killed more than 42,000 Americans in 2016, and the official 2017 tally will probably be much worse, making the crisis a bigger killer than the HIV/AIDS epidemic at its height.

For years, Congress ramped up taxpayer investment to deal with the ballooning problem, but the latest effort changes policy to rein in the supply of opioids fueling addiction and cut red tape that puts treatment out of reach.

The effort also gave Republicans in swing districts the chance to sponsor key bills and tout their efforts on the campaign trail heading into November’s midterm elections.

House leaders expect the Senate to consider the package, which hits pause on Medicaid-payment limits for drug treatment at certain facilities, creates a web-based “dashboard” of nationwide efforts and strategies to combat the opioid crisis, and links overdose victims with follow-up treatment.

It also requires the U.S. Postal Service to demand advanced electronic data on every package from foreign posts by 2021, so customs agents can better target shipments of deadly synthetic opioids from overseas, particularly China.

Other changes would help infants who were born to addicted mothers and suffer from withdrawal, educate children and seniors alike about the potential risks of opioids use, and support laboratories that test drugs for traces of fentanyl, which can kill heroin users in small amounts and poses a danger to law enforcement officers.

The House package costs $3 billion, a price-tag that comes on top of the roughly $4 billion that Congress threw at the opioids problem in a major spending bill earlier this year. The legislation is paid for, however — mainly through changes that return money to Medicaid by allowing states to keep a greater amount of rebate dollars.

Rep. Frank Pallone, New Jersey Democrat, said his party found plenty of things to like in the package, such as allowing Medicare to pay for methadone-clinic treatment, even if it “does not adequately deal with the magnitude of the crisis that this country is facing.”

Some Democrats say Congress needs to go big and approve $100 billion over 10 years to combat the addiction crisis, akin to the campaign to tackle HIV/AIDS nearly three decades ago.

Some of the opioid bills that made it through the House will travel to the Senate separately from Friday’s package.

One such bill, passed Wednesday, would streamline a set of health-privacy laws so that records of substance-abuse treatment are no longer segregated from a patient’s general medical record. Its chief sponsor, Rep. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma, said that too often, the record isn’t sought or patients don’t disclose their past treatment, leaving doctors to treat “half a patient.”

Some privacy advocates opposed the bill, saying they feared the information would leak beyond treatment settings because of electronic breaches or unscrupulous clinicians.

Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said Friday a quartet of Senate committees recently advanced their own set of bipartisan opioids bills and that leaders are eyeing floor time for them.

“Once the Senate completes work on this opioids package, we’ll work quickly with the House to get a final bill to the president for his signature,” Mr. Stewart said.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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