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Congress addresses opioid abuse

Republican leaders in the House of Representatives are signaling agreement with Senate and White House proposals on drug addiction legislation, representing a rare election-year deal.

Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy penned an op-ed Thursday in the Independent Journal Review that cited federal statistics showing 78 Americans die each day from opioid overdoses – and he said more than 160 residents in his hometown of Kern County, Calif. end up in an emergency room each year.

McCarthy vowed action by House committees this month, with a floor vote likely in May. Observers had been watching for some sign of movement ever since the Senate overwhelmingly passed its own bill a month ago.

“The President’s own proposals to combat opioid addiction demonstrate that there is ample opportunity to reach a bipartisan consensus, and the Senate’s recent work to combat opioid addiction shows bicameral legislative interest,” McCarthy said.

The Senate on March 10 voted 94-1 for the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), by Republicans Rob Portman of Ohio and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. It was considered a boon for politically vulnerable senators, such as Ayotte and Portman, who are facing tough re-election contests in states hit hard by rising heroin use.

The Senate bill allocates federal funds to state and local programs that promote education and prevention efforts, and increases access to clean syringes and drugs that can reverse overdoses and treat chemical dependence. It also includes "diversion programs" that redirect low-level drug crimes from the criminal justice system and into treatment programs. An identical bill already exists in the House but has been languishing for a year.

 President Obama unveiled his administration’s own proposals in a March 29 speech at an addiction summit in Atlanta, calling for federal funding for syringe access programs, opioid overdose reversal drugs and medication-assisted treatment.

 During a panel discussion, Obama said addiction should be addressed with treatment instead of simply increasing criminal penalties.  “The most important thing we can do is to reduce the demand for drugs,” he said. “The only way that we reduce the demand is if we are providing treatment. And thinking about this as a public health problem, and not just as a criminal problem.”

But House leaders had been largely silent on the issue until this week. Although a handful of lawmakers have floated addiction bills, many were waiting for a sign from top Republicans who have traditionally favored criminalization measures and opposed syringe-access efforts.

 McCarthy’s move wasn’t enough for some. Portman on Thursday took to the Senate floor to praise the GOP leader’s interest in the issue – but also to issue a warning. He cited federal statistics that estimated there have been more than 3,200 deaths in the 27 days since CARA was passed in the Senate.

 “The House must act, and they must act soon. I’m not going to be patient on this,” Portman said. “This is urgent and people’s lives are at stake.”

 McCarthy stopped short of formally endorsing the Senate bill, but embraced its overall idea. He pointed to estimates by the  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that more than six out of 10 drug overdoses involve opioids, with prescription abuse accounting for much of the problem.

“Addiction tears apart families, it uproots communities, but, most fundamentally, it deprives Americans of the individual liberty to grasp their dreams and opportunities. It’s also preventable,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, the numbers of those affected by this opioid epidemic are on the rise, stretching far past Kern County, across America, and ruining countless lives.”

But one near-certain battle will be over funding. The Senate bill allotted $400 million to state and local governments for its various initiatives, but the White House has asked for $1.1 billion. Democrats tried a compromise in March, offering an amendment that would have appropriated $600 million, but it was blocked by GOP senators.

 The lone senator who opposed the bill in March was also a Republican – Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who said in a statement that the federal government should focus on stopping drug trafficking instead of tackling addiction problems.