Congress working overtime to fight US opiate epidemic


This U.S. Congress, like many before it, rightly deserves the snickers of a nation over its tortoise-like speed and partisan hissy fits in addressing some of the most serious public-policy quandaries facing the nation. Inaction and rancor quite often rule the day when Congress confronts critical priorities such as immigration reform, spending priorities and infrastructure needs.

But in at least one crucial domain, our legislators on Capitol Hill have been working overtime to produce and adopt a hefty grab bag of promising legislation designed to tame the monstrous opiate epidemic. In demonstrating such uncharacteristic initiative and in producing results, the first branch of government has proven it can be both responsive and productive.

So far this month, the House of Representatives has passed more than 70 pieces of bills that target a healthy segment of the many dimensions of the epidemic. Some of those bills aim to improve addiction treatment. Others encourage nonopiate pain-management alternatives. Still others crack down on foreign shipments of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.

A highlight of this hyperactive House session came last Friday, when it approved by a whopping 396-14 margin House Resolution 6, The Substance Use-Disorder Prevention that Promotes Opioid Recovery and Treatment (SUPPORT) for Patients and Communities.

Though the title alone is quite a mouthful, it aptly represents the wide swath of priorities the legislation encompasses. It is an omnibus package of bills placed under one moniker that, among other things, would:

*Expand access to opiate treatment programs to Medicare recipients. Such action is warranted, given that a recent Stanford University study found senior citizens rank “among the highest and most rapidly growing prevalence of opioid-use disorder.”

Direct the National Institutes of Health to put a priority on developing nonaddictive painkillers.

Implement “Jessie’s Law,” which would require that medical records list a patient’s addiction history. It’s named after Jessie Grubb, who died from a prescription overdose because a doctor who prescribed her painkillers was unaware of her opiate addiction.

Better protect communities by giving law enforcement funding for tools to keep illicit drugs out of their communities, better intercept opioids at mail facilities and provide grants to local communities for anti-fentanyl initiatives.

VALLEY LAWMAKERS PLAY ROLE

We’re heartened by that and other progress and pleased that lawmakers representing our region and state have played key roles in the ongoing opiate offensive. After all, Ohio remains one of the states most severely affected by the misery and suffering the epidemic has wrought.

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Howland, D-13th, has introduced a bill to authorize $1 billion in funding to fight the epidemic. U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson of Marietta, R-6th, recently saw enactment of his measure to buoy centers that treat substance-abuse disorders.

In the upper chamber of Congress, U.S. Sen Rob Portman, R-Cincinnati, has introduced legislation to stop the flow of synthetic drugs into the nation. For his part, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Cleveland, last week won passage of a measure to support grandparents raising their grandchildren because of the epidemic.

For the immediate future, it is incumbent upon Congress to complete action on its whirlwind of anti-opiate measures. Most importantly, that translates into swift Senate passage of HR 6.

In the long term, it is incumbent on those same lawmakers to keep a strong pulse on the needs of their states and communities to craft additional strategies in which federal policymaking can play a constructive role in easing the drug crisis.

Such action appears to be making a difference. Preliminary data from health agencies and anecdotal evidence from those on the front lines of the drug war indicate that 2018 may be the first year in a decade that the Mahoning Valley and the state may witness a notable reduction in the number of overdoses and deaths.

Still, there’s no reason for unbridled optimism. Even when chipping at the edges of the epidemic, its grim toll on individuals, families and communities remains huge.

A new report from the National Safety Council titled “Prescription Nation 2018” underscores that point. It calls the opioid epidemic “the most fatal drug crisis in U.S. history” with no fewer than 11 million Americans misusing opiate pain relievers in the past year.

It also notes that while 13 states – including Ohio – have shown improvement in combating opiate abuse, 30 others are lagging and seven are downright failing.

Those findings reinforce the fact that the opioid epidemic is a national crisis. As such, federal officials and lawmakers, in concert with local and state leaders, must remain vigilant and proactive toward eradicating this national scourge sooner rather than later.

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