WASHINGTON – The opioids epidemic that is ripping apart lives across the country appears to be uniting Republicans and Democrats in Congress.
“I know of no other issue right now that commands the attention of so many members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate committee that oversees health care issues.
Four committees in the House and the Senate are holding hearings Wednesday on an assortment of bills looking at different ways to combat the epidemic, which resulted in more than 42,000 opioid overdose deaths in 2016 and which experts agree is growing worse.
Alexander is pushing for his committee to send a bipartisan opioids package to the Senate floor by the end of the month. The goal in the House is to pass a sweeping opioids bill by Memorial Day.
Many of the same proposals are under consideration in both the House and the Senate, increasing the likelihood that some legislation will eventually become law.
In the Senate, the most sweeping proposal is a draft bipartisan bill before the Senate Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. The bill was drafted by the panel’s top two lawmakers – Alexander, who is the chairman, and Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the committee’s top Democrat. The two senators have a track record of championing bipartisan legislation on complex issues.
Their latest proposal, which will be the focus of one of the hearings Wednesday, includes more than a dozen prescriptions for fixing the opioids crisis, including speeding up the development of non-addictive painkillers, stepping up enforcement efforts to stop the flow of addictive drugs from other countries, and sending more grant money into states that have been hit hardest by the epidemic.
“Listening to families and experts across the country who are fighting the opioid epidemic, I’ve heard firsthand about the challenges and opportunities, the successes and failures, the hope and the heartbreak of this crisis,” Murray said. “I’m glad we were able to work in a bipartisan way on legislation that incorporates good ideas from both sides of the aisle to address some of the concerns we’ve heard.
“This bill is a testament to the value of listening and builds on our past efforts with strong new steps to help communities turn the tide.”
Alexander saw the devastating consequences of opioid addiction when he visited a children’s hospital in East Tennessee last week. Ten of the 30 newborns in the neonatal unit were suffering withdrawal symptoms from exposure to opioids, he said, and other hospitals around the state have reported similarly alarming numbers.
“Despite the fact that everybody is working hard to deal with the epidemic, it’s getting worse,” Alexander said. “I expect our response in the Senate to be prompt, urgent and bipartisan.”
The push for development of a non-addictive painkiller may be the most important tool in fighting the epidemic, Alexander said.
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, has predicted that such medication could be ready within five years. Alexander's and Murray's bill would give him the authority to use some of the agency’s existing funds to work with the private sector on research for such drugs and would give the Food and Drug Administration the authority to fast-track the medication and other treatments once they are available.
“So many people live with pain,” Alexander said, “if we can find new truly non-addictive pain medicine or pain strategies, that would bring great relief to millions of Americans and would help solve this epidemic.”
In addition, the Senate proposal would clarify the FDA’s authority to require drug manufacturers to package opioids and other drugs in smaller packs, such as a three- or seven-day supply, and to require that packaging to include simple and safe options for patients to dispose of unused drugs.
The bill also includes provisions that would address the impact of opioids on infants, children and families; enable states to improve their prescription drug monitoring programs and share the data with other states so doctors and pharmacies can know if their patients have a history of substance abuse; and make it easier for medical providers to electronically prescribe controlled substances in limited circumstances.
Meanwhile, a House Energy and Commerce Committee subcommittee reviewed nearly three dozen opioid bills last month and is scheduled to consider another 30 during a hearing on Wednesday.
Hearings also are set Wednesday before subcommittees of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
The Senate hearing will look at ways to combat fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 50 times more potent than heroin and often arrives in the United States via mail from Mexico and China. Fentanyl is blamed for much of the spike in opioid overdoses.
The House panel will review what states and local governments are doing to fight the opioid epidemic and will examine what the federal government can do to help them.