WASHINGTON — Responding to an urgent drug crisis that has contributed to more American deaths than car crashes, the Senate Thursday overwhelmingly passed a broad drug treatment and prevention bill, the largest of its kind since a law in 2008 that mandated insurance coverage for addiction treatment.
“This is big and significant,” said Marvin Ventrell, the executive director of the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers. “It had legs and interest because of the opioid crisis that has hit Middle America.”
The bill — which passed 94 to 1 — is a boon for Republican senators in swing states, which have been hit particularly hard by the drug crisis. Republican Senators Rob Portman of Ohio and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire spent weeks promoting the measure on the floor after seeing opioid-related crime and addiction soar in their states.
“What good are additional programs if they aren’t adequately funded?” said Senator Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania. “We can’t ask medical professionals to do more to treat addiction if they don’t have the resources.” (Mr. Portman and Ms. Ayotte were among five Republicans to vote for the extra funding measure.) But in the end, the bill was considered too urgent to dismiss over a funding fight.
While meaningful bipartisan legislation in the Senate is about as rare as a spoon-billed sandpiper these days, Republicans and Democrats have found a common ground over the last year on criminal justice and mental health issues. The House has been working the drug issue and is expected to have legislation on the floor this spring.
The epidemic “is probably one of the most pressing public health issues facing American families across the country,” said Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, one of dozens of senators who came to the Senate floor to praise the bill, which was sponsored by Mr. Portman and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island.
In contrast, Ms. Murkowski’s bipartisan energy bill has been held up for weeks by Democrats over a similar funding fight, in that case for money to help the city of Flint, Mich., recover from its tainted water crisis. The drug crisis has become increasingly pervasive, and in places rarely associated with issues like opioid addiction. An epidemic of abuse of prescription painkillers and heroin — often abused when the prescription drugs run out — has swept the United States, with overdose deaths quadrupling since the late 1990s.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug overdose was the leading cause of injury death in 2013 — the most recent date available — among American 25 to 64 years old, surpassing deaths caused by motor vehicle traffic crashes; 71 percent involved opioid painkillers. Some public health experts have bemoaned the lack of federal response and have argued that the Food and Drug Administration has exacerbated the problem by continuing to approve new opioids in a market already flooded with them.
The treatment and prevention action has largely been at the state level. Some states, like Florida, which have passed such laws, have seen a decline in opiate-related deaths.
“We really haven’t seen major legislation in this space for well over a decade,” said Daniel Raymond, policy director of the Harm Reduction Coalition. “It’s a big deal because it’s bipartisan and because it symbolizes this broader shift we are seeing at community level in addressing addiction more as a health problem rather than just criminal justice problem.”
The measure authorizes money for various treatment and prevention programs across a broad spectrum of addicts including those in jail. It also strengthens prescription drug monitoring programs to help states and expands the availability of naloxone, which helps reverse overdoses, to law enforcement agencies and increases disposal sites for prescription medications which are often abused by teenagers and others.
“There are so many people whose lives are being ruined, families torn apart, communities devastated,” Mr. Portman said. “It’s a comprehensive approach.”
Democrats vowed to keep fighting for more money, which the White House has encouraged them to do. Calling the bill, “an important first step,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York. He added, “but it’s only the first step in a long race against this epidemic — by itself it won’t get us over the finish line.”
By Jennifer Steinhauer - The NY Times/March 10, 2016