Working Together to Prevent Prescription Drug Abuse
January 9th, 2016

Quick Action on Opioid Abuse Bill Pledged

By Melanie Zanona

CQ Roll Call

Washington, D.C. – Bipartisan legislation to curb prescription drug and heroin abuse could move through committee this fall and arrive on the Senate floor by early next year, according to the bill’s sponsors, who indicated they are open to tweaking the package to attract more support.

Republican Rob Portman of Ohio and Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island said their measure (S 524) to address opioid addiction and recovery recently picked up two GOP cosponsors on the Senate Judiciary Committee – the panel with jurisdiction over the bill. The pair is optimistic that the wide-ranging package will receive consideration later this year, although they are battling a tight legislative calendar.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., while supportive of efforts to combat opioid abuse, has so far mostly thrown his weight behind a measure (S 799) to prevent infants from being born with an opioid addiction.

The Portman-Whitehouse plan was first introduced in late 2014 and never received a markup, but supporters think this year could be different. The measure is backed by at least 15 lawmakers, including Senate Finance Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, and Democrat Charles E. Schumer of New York.

“There’s been a real shift in the appreciation for what addiction is, how it works and how we should respond to it as a society. That shift is the cornerstone of our legislation,” Whitehouse said at a panel discussion Wednesday hosted by the Alliance to Prevent the Abuse of Medicines.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called the incidence of prescription drug and heroin abuse a national epidemic, noting that more Americans now die from opioid overdoses more than car accidents.

The issue has garnered the attention of the White House and Congress, with President Barack Obama and House and Senate appropriators all proposing to boost spending to target opioid abuse and addiction in fiscal 2016. The Health and Human Services Department announced Tuesday it would award $500 million in funding from the 2010 health care overhaul (PL 111-148, PL 111-152) to community health centers for primary care services, in part to treat substance abuse.

The plan backed by Portman and Whitehouse would expand educational and prevention efforts, increase access to drugs that can reverse the effects of overdose and launch evidence-based treatment and intervention programs.

The measure also would strengthen prescription drug-monitoring programs in states. Whitehouse called the current patchwork of state programs a “mushy smorgasbord.” He emphasized the need for a strong federal partner and better interoperability between states.

Whitehouse acknowledged the legislation is a “work in progress” and both senators indicated that they are willing to explore other proposals that would strengthen their efforts.

“We’d like to move what we have, but we are always open to new ways to make progress,” Portman said.