Addiction Recovery Groups Warn House Republicans Are Prolonging Opioid Crisis

A new House bill moves the focus away from recovery.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, left, and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, second from right, have been promising swift action on the
House Speaker Paul Ryan, left, and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, second from right, have been promising swift action on the heroin epidemic. 

Addiction recovery groups are opening up a full-throated campaign against legislation that House Republicans will propose as the chamber's response to the opioid epidemic.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) have been promising swift action following the March passage of the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act in the Senate by a vote of 94-1.

On Wednesday, House Republicans will introduce the Comprehensive Opioid Abuse Reduction Act, an advance copy of which was obtained by The Huffington Post. If the House had been hoping its parallel effort would win the support of the drug policy and addiction community, though, a barrage of letters has been unleashed to set them straight.

The Harm Reduction Coalition and the group Faces & Voices of Recovery have both weighed in with critical missives, which were also provided to HuffPost. Another letter, signed by 71 separate recovery groups, similarly takes aim at the House bill, as the GOP risks becoming the face of opposition to addressing the heroin epidemic.

As the name implies, the House bill reduces the focus on recovery. "Most notably, the [bill] omits vital provisions in CARA addressing recovery, collateral consequences, and prevention and education," reads the note from HRC. The coalition of 71 groups and Faces & Voices of Recovery also cite the House's lack of focus on rehabilitation.

"Without recovery provisions, CARA will not only be weaker as a whole, but will prolong the crisis of addiction by not providing the critical support in communities across our nation where it is needed most," reads the Faces & Voices letter.

Last week, House Republican-run subcommittees approved a slew of a dozen bills aimed at the heroin crisis, a prelude to Wednesday's unveiling of the larger bill. McCarthy on Monday said that the week of May 9 would see significant action on the House floor on the opioid epidemic. But the advocacy groups warn the House's last-minute maneuvering creates the very real possibility that the legislative calendar will end with nothing at all getting done.

"The constraints of the legislative calendar pose a considerable risk that any such bill passed by the House which deviates so significantly from the Senate’s version of CARA will require not only extensive conference, but ultimately another extensive floor debate in the Senate," HRC says. "Under such circumstances, we fear that neither CARA nor the Comprehensive Opioid Abuse Reduction Act will be able to secure final passage and be signed into law during this session."

The Senate bill was crafted over a three-year period and includes input from a wide spectrum of stakeholders, not just recovery groups, but law enforcement, prosecutors and public health organizations as well. Because the House has been working quickly in the wake of the Senate bill, the same deliberative process hasn't been possible, so the negotiations are spilling into the public.

The House bill, COARA, runs only 15 pages, and would allow all of the funding authorized to go to a law enforcement-first approach to what is widely acknowledged to be a public health crisis. The bill would allow public health and other groups to compete for grants, but the way it is set up appears to stack the deck in favor of enforcement. CARA, meanwhile, runs 125 pages and requires by law that significant amounts of the funding go toward recovery and other public health-related efforts.

McCarthy spokesman Mike Long said he had not yet seen the letters, but expressed confidence that House and Senate differences would be worked out in a conference committee.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), one of the co-authors of CARA, took the floor for the fourth time in four weeks to go after his House colleagues for their slow pace. 

He highlighted the quickening pace of the epidemic, which is taking lives at a startling rate. Every day the newspapers are filled with heartbreaking stories of addiction, he said.

"Last week, from Tuesday afternoon to Wednesday morning, six people died of overdoses in Elyria, Ohio. This is not a big city," Portman said. "Elyria has a population of about 53,000. But we lost six people in 24 hours, and that doesn’t include the 14 people who were saved by naloxone -- a miracle drug that can actually reverse the effects of an overdose. Those 14 people all overdosed within six hours."

"Last week, in Lebanon, Ohio, where my family has roots going back to the 1920s, a 34-year-old woman who was engaged to be married overdosed and died in front of her children, one age 10, and one a baby girl who is still learning to walk," he added. "That little girl’s father has now been arrested. Within days, because of her mother’s addiction, she has lost both parents from her life."