Congress for years has nibbled around the opioid addiction issue, allocating billions of dollars and hours of speeches at the problem.
But this week, the House will take its first major steps to change the policies that fuel the addiction, hoping to alter the prescription regime that gets some people hooked, reel in leftover pills that fuel addiction and disrupt the supply chain of illegal heroin and fentanyl that is killing thousands of people per year.
The House will vote on more than 30 measures over a two-week span, kicking off the GOP’s election-year push to build on the Obama-era legislation and the recent approval of $4 billion to bolster state programs and explore non-opioid alternatives for treating pain.
“While these funds are critical resources in the nationwide fight to stem the tide, we also know we can’t spend our way out of this crisis,” said Jennifer Sherman, spokeswoman for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which worked on many of the bills. “It is our hope that, along with historic levels of funding, these reforms will lead to long-term changes in how we fight the opioid crisis.”
The push dovetails with President Trump’s goal to treat opioid addiction as a public health emergency.
It also gives vulnerable Republicans the chance to trumpet bills on the campaign trail this year, on an issue that’s drawing headlines in every part of the country.
“With few other bills moving right now, it is important for them to have something for which they can claim credit when they are back in their districts this summer,” said Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
Democrats say the GOP needs to spend more — some have suggested $100 billion over the coming decade — and say Republican attempts to repeal Obamacare will hurt health workers’ efforts to fight the problem.
Still, Democrats have signed onto many of the House bills, so aides expect to pass big batches of the non-controversial measures with ease.
Notable bills include “Jessie’s Law,” which ensures doctors have access to a consenting patient’s record of drug addiction, before prescribing treatment. It orders the Health and Human Services Department to come up with best practices for hospitals and physicians to share the information.
Authored by Reps. Tim Walberg and Debbie Dingell of Michigan, the bill was named for Jessie Grubb, a West Virginia native who died from opioid overdose following surgery in Michigan for a running-related injury. Though her parents traveled to Michigan to tell doctors and hospital workers about her addiction history — she’d gotten clean and was building a new life — the discharging doctor wasn’t informed and prescribed her oxycodone pills, and she died shortly after.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy also highlighted a pair of bills by GOP lawmakers in swing districts that Republicans hope to defend in November.
Rep. Barbara Comstock, Virginia Republican, is pushing a bill that encourages the Health and Human Services Department to produce better clinical data on non-opioid alternatives for pain, while a bill by Rep. John Faso, New York Republican, prods Medicare to educate seniors about the risks of opioids and discuss other options.
The House will cap the week Friday by voting on a measure from Rep. John Katko, New York Republican, that bans over a dozen forms of fentanyl by adding them to federal drug schedules.
Other bills will allow hospice workers to dispose of a deceased patient’s pills, so they don’t fall into the wrong hands, assist hospitals in scheduling follow-up care after overdose patients are discharged and help states track and treat infections related to intravenous drug use.
There’s also the STOP Act, which requires shippers sending packages into the U.S. to provide more data on what’s being sent, in an effort to cut the flow of illegal synthetic opioids from clandestine labs overseas.
A bipartisan group led by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady said last week they’d landed a compromise bill that imposes fines on the U.S. Postal Service if they accept packages without the advanced data after 2020, after key senators objected to a less stringent House version.
It is unclear when the Senate will take up opioids legislation, though Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has listed it as a priority for this year.
The Trump administration teed up the flurry of House votes by urging states Monday to cover babies born with opioid withdrawal under their Medicaid programs and leverage federal technology funding to coordinate substance-abuse treatment.