America is in the grip of a full-blown public health crisis. A staggering 72,000 people died last year from drug overdoses, most of them involving opioids. This week, the U.S. Senate is expected to vote on legislation to address this loss of so many lives. The package is heartening and frustrating: heartening because it offers some positive steps, and frustrating because it doesn’t do more.
Last year, President Donald Trump declared the toll of opioid overdoses to be a public health emergency and pledged strong action to combat it. “We can be the generation that ends the opioid epidemic,” he said. The commission he appointed to study the problem, chaired by Chris Christie, followed up with a raft of recommendations.
The House passed legislation in June, and the Senate takes up its version this week. The package under consideration represents a rare bipartisan effort, including some 70 senators, to deal with a problem acknowledged by all. It combines law enforcement with public health measures, and it qualifies as a good start.
The main law enforcement element would aim at stopping the import of illegal drugs by facilitating cooperation between the federal Food and Drug Administration and Customs and Border Protection. The Postal Service would be required to do more to detect such shipments, which often come from labs in China and Mexico. Curtailing supplies of powerful synthetic compounds such as fentanyl is a vital step, because they account for most of the increase in opioid fatalities.
The Senate bill also would expand access to treatment, which is one key to reducing demand for opioids. Among its components: The bill would make it easier for Medicare recipients to get substance abuse therapy through telemedicine services, which can be especially useful for rural patients. It directs the Department of Health and Human Services to undertake a pilot program of Medicare coverage for opioid addiction treatment. It increases the number of physicians who can prescribe treatment drugs. It authorizes new funding to the National Institutes of Health to help find new painkillers that aren’t addictive and don’t contain opioids. It expands a program to distribute naloxone, which is used to reverse overdoses, to first responders.
What it doesn’t do is approve money on a large scale, something Christie said he expected from Trump. The Congressional Budget Office puts the price tag at an evidently inadequate $29 million over the next decade. And this measure only authorizes funding; additional bills will have to be approved to actually appropriate the money. A Democratic bill to provide $45 billion for prevention, treatment and other needs has gone nowhere.
Still, credit is due to lawmakers for moving in the right direction. Regina LaBelle, who was chief of staff of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President Barack Obama, told The Washington Post the Senate package “emphasizes prevention, making sure we have more people who can treat people with addiction and it supports people in recovery, it does reflect what the science tells us. There’s always more than can be done, but in an election year, I think this is pretty good.”
“Pretty good” is not quite what a disaster of this magnitude deserves. But as a step toward a more ambitious and comprehensive response by the federal government, it’s worth taking.
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