A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Congress sends President Trump bipartisian bill to fight the opioid epidemic; he says he will sign it

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

By a 98-1 vote Wednesday, the Senate passed the final version of a comprehensive package to address the opioid epidemic and sent it to President Donald Trump, who is expected to sign it “just in time for lawmakers to campaign on the issue before the November elections,” Colby Itkowitz reports for The Washington Post.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) cast the only opposing vote. The House passed its version of the bill last week 393-8. Trump issued a statement saying “I look forward to signing this historic legislation.”

The 653-page bill “unites dozens of smaller proposals sponsored by hundreds of lawmakers, many of whom face tough reelection fights,” Itkowitz notes.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell noted that more people in recovery will have access to housing and work opportunities because of his legislation that was included in the package. “With today’s vote, the Senate will say this to every American affected by the opioid epidemic: America is fighting back against this crisis,” said McConnell, who is already running for re-election in 2020.

Considered one of Congress’s most significant legislative achievements this year, the legislation “creates, expands and reauthorizes programs and policies” and addresses both law-enforcement and public health measures, particularly around prevention, treatment and recovery, Itkowitz reports.

Opioid overdoses were responsible for nearly 50,000 U.S. deaths last year, 1,565 in Kentucky.

Itkowitz reports that Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), “who sounded the alarm on opioid addiction four years ago,” is credited with the bill’s provision that will require the U.S. Postal Service to screen packages for synthetic fentanyl shipped from overseas, mainly China.

Portman said in a floor speech Tuesday, “How many people had to die before Congress stood up and did the right thing with regard to telling our own post office you have to provide better screening?”

Among other things, the legislation allows more health-care providers to prescribe medication for opioid addiction; will make it easier for Medicaid recipients to get inpatient care for substance abuse over the next five years; and provides funds for the research and development of new, non-addictive painkillers. It would also create a grant program for comprehensive recovery centers that include housing and job training, as well as mental and physical health care.

Public-health advocates are pleased with the bill’s increased attention to treatment, but “many experts” are concerned that it doesn’t dedicate enough long-term funding to fight a crisis of this magnitude, Itkowitz reports.

“This legislation edges us closer to treating addiction as the devastating disease it is, but it neglects to provide the long-term investment we’ve seen in responses to other major public health crises,” Lindsey Vuolo, associate director of health law and policy at Center on Addiction, told Itkowitz. “We won’t be able to make meaningful progress against the tide of addiction unless we make significant changes to incorporate addiction treatment into the existing health care system.”

Congress has appropriated $8.5 billion this year for opioid-related programs, but there’s no guarantee of funding for subsequent years, Itkowitz reports.

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