‘Christmas miracle’ holds hope to stem opioid crisis


U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called this month’s passage of a $6.3 billion bill designed in part to slow the nation’s out-of-control heroin epidemic “the most significant legislation passed by this Congress.”

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., went one step further, labeling approval of The 21st Century Cures Act nothing short of “a Christmas miracle.”

No, these two leaders of the upper lawmaking chamber of American government were not engaging in the shameless congressional arts of bloated rhetoric and hasty hyperbole. Considering the sorry track record of the 114th Congress punctuated by inaction, political gamesmanship and partisan gridlock, the overwhelming bipartisan passage of this public-spirited health law restores a glimmer of hope that our elected officials actually can act in the best interests of American citizens.

The Cures Act accomplishes just that. It offers a meaty $1 billion in aid to the states for a variety of opioid prevention and treatment programs. It aims to make treatment programs more accessible, to train health care professionals to better care for people dealing with addiction, and to conduct research into the most effective approaches to prevent dependency.

Inadequate resources to finance more comprehensive treatment have long stood as major obstacles to slowing the epidemic’s nefarious growth.

In addition, the timing of the bill’s passage and its rapid-fire enactment into law by President Barack Obama last week couldn’t have been more propitious. Coincidentally last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report on the state of opiate addiction in this nation, and its findings are unsettling.

It reported that opioids were involved in 33,091 deaths in 2015, 5,000 more than in 2014 and four times the number since 1999. Deaths involving powerful synthetic opiates, such as fentanyl, rose by nearly 75 percent from 2014 to 2015.

Ohio the epicenter

Amid that scourge, Ohioans, unfortunately find themselves in the epicenter. The CDC report noted the Buckeye State has the fourth-highest rate of death due to drug overdose in the nation at 29.9 per 100,000 people and it witnessed the number of those deaths soar 21 percent in 2015 over 2014. Sadly, those disturbing trends also hit close to home as overdoses and deaths continue to overwhelm health officials and emergency responders throughout the Mahoning Valley.

“With one Ohioan dying of an overdose of heroin or prescription drugs every three hours, our state is in a crisis,” Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said in applauding enactment of the Cures Act. Portman, many will recall, led the drive earlier this year to pass the Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act, which provides $181 million in new funding to battle the opioid epidemic.

Ohioans are fortunate to have him and Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown in the forefront of passionate congressional efforts to respond responsibly and meaningfully to the opioid contagion.

And while the $1 billion in funding to fight drug-overdose deaths has gained the lion’s share of attention, the Cures Act also stands to bolster health care for Americans in several other critical arenas.

The wide-ranging health bill includes $4.8 billion to the National Institutes of Health to fund additional research, including cancer and brain research. The act also accelerates the speed and decreases the costs for formal Food and Drug Administration approvals for some potentially life-saving medications.

Congressional unity

The 94-5 Senate passage and 392-26 House passage of the act served as an honorable yet uncharacteristic way for the 2015-16 Congress to ride into the sunset. After all, the unity behind this legislation stood in stark contrast to the discord and lethargy displayed in numerous other public-spirited initiatives that cast shame and ineptitude on Congress over the past two years.

Now it’s time to let this month’s success serve as a guidepost to members of the incoming 115th Congress in January: There is an easy route out of partisan gridlock and failure to govern. One need only glance at the unity, the commitment and the leadership evident in passing the Cures Act for clear direction.

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