Senators Try One More Time To Get Funding To Fight Opioid Epidemic

Congress has fallen far short of the president's previous requests.
Capitol building in Washington D.C.
Capitol building in Washington D.C.

WASHINGTON ― Congress may have found one last chance to put real muscle behind the push to slow the opioid crisis, sources close to ongoing negotiations tell The Huffington Post.

In late July, President Barack Obama signed into law the first bipartisan bill addressing the epidemic that has taken root across the U.S. While the legislation opened the door for expanding and, most importantly, improving treatment, it fell far short of the nearly $1 billion the administration had proposed to address the crisis. In fact, the bill included essentially no new funding. In a statement on the bill signing, Obama made it clear this wasn’t a moment to celebrate.

“I am deeply disappointed that Republicans failed to provide any real resources for those seeking addiction treatment to get the care that they need,” Obama said. “In fact, they blocked efforts by Democrats to include $920 million in treatment funding.”

Now key senators are eyeing another bipartisan bill, the 21st Century Cures Act, as an opportunity to fund a response to the epidemic.

The legislation would give a huge monetary boost to the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. If they can fund research to find cures for cancer and other diseases, the thinking goes, why can’t there be money to address the disease of opioid-use disorder?

“We’re still hoping that we can get it into whatever funding bill moves,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) told HuffPost. “If we’re going to pass the version of the Cures Act, I certainly think funding for opioid and heroin abuse ought to be part of that, because we’re seeing the same kind of impact there that we’re seeing from so many of the diseases that the Cures Act will address.”

Shaheen said she has talked to leadership and other supporters on the matter. “Hopefully, we can get this done,” she said.

Shaheen has been joined in this effort by Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.). “We need more than words and promises to save lives in this opioid crisis, we need immediate funding,” Markey said in a statement to HuffPost. “We have a few weeks left in this lame duck session to show the American people that both parties in Congress recognize the urgency of the opioid epidemic and to pass legislation that includes substantial new funding for treatment and recovery. Congress cannot afford to make any more empty promises to our cities and states about funding to combat the opioid crisis.”

The push for funding in the bill appears to be bipartisan, and negotiations about the overall bill are ongoing. (The bill has its share of critics.) Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a champion of the bill and one of the best negotiators on the Hill, told HuffPost it’s possible that the epidemic could be addressed in the bill. “There’s a lot of support for that,” he said. “We’ll see whether it’s in the final package.”

The opioid epidemic has devastated communities across the U.S., with counties and states coping with record numbers of overdose deaths. It’s also exposed the treatment system as inadequate and antiquated.

“Any increase would be vital through whatever vehicle is available,” Daniel Raymond, director of policy with the Harm Reduction Coalition, said in an email. “We’re grateful for Senator Shaheen’s leadership and insistence on treating the heroin crisis as the emergency it truly is.”

UPDATE: Nov. 18 ― On Friday, Reps. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) and Ann McLane Kuster (D-N.H.), along with 22 of their fellow House Democrats, sent a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), asking them to address the opioid epidemic in the Cures Act with “immediate funding.”

“Knowing that Cures will likely be one of the final pieces of legislation that Congress acts on this year, we hope you will consider this a final opportunity to take needed action to combat this crisis,” the letter read.

Reps. Tim Ryan of Ohio and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland were among the Democrats who signed the letter.

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