Can House Republicans Rise to the Opioid Challenge?

When it comes to the Republicans, particularly the House Republicans, I like to throw sharp elbows, but I am going to try a more conciliatory tone here because I think there’s some small sliver of hope that they might do the right thing. Back on March 10th, the Senate overwhelmingly passed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016 in a 94-1 roll call. (I wrote about the effort to pass that bill here).

You would think that a bill that can get 94 votes in the Senate (with only Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska dissenting) should be able to pass in the House. But it’s not a sure thing for the precise reason you might guess. A significant number of House Republicans don’t agree on the cause of the huge spike in opioid overdoses that has overtaken our communities over the last decade. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there were 29,000 opioid-related deaths in 2014, of which only 10,500 were due to heroin use. Unfortunately, prescription opioids are the biggest killer, and most heroin addicts today got started on prescription drugs. Nonetheless, House Republicans cling to the idea that drug interdiction is the key. They also blame a relaxation of marijuana restrictions for creating a permissive culture for drug abuse, and they think the president isn’t being aggressive enough in prosecuting drug crimes.

Still, other largely partisan differences could complicate passage of any House-altered version of the Senate’s bill.

That’s because Republicans and Democrats agree that the country’s opioid drug abuse epidemic affects most states and districts, but a House hearing just before the recess period began exposed partisan rifts over key factors driving the addiction epidemic problem.

Democrats largely link the uptick in prescription painkiller-related deaths to a lack of access to treatment and drugs designed to prevent overdoses. But House Oversight and Government Reform Republicans see the root problems as subpar efforts to stop drug traffickers, laws making marijuana illegal, and fewer drug-related prosecutions.

There’s really two fights going on here. One fight is over whether to put any real money into this bill (and when to appropriate it), and the other is over what the bill should pay for.

The opioid epidemic requires a comprehensive approach, but this bill is supposed to address addiction and recovery, which means the focus should be on how to help people survive and beat their dependency on opioids. Once your kid is hooked on heroin, it’s a little too late to interdict the drug at the border.

Regardless, Congress ought to agree to authorize the spending now and then they can hopefully hold hearings and better educate themselves about what the recovery community needs. The bill should not die because there’s a disagreement over what causes people to get addicted. That fight won’t save one person who is currently at risk of overdosing.

Now, the president is going to be attending a summit on this issue today that was organized by House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers of Kentucky. This powerful Republican lawmaker knows very well how urgent this matter is because his home state has been ground zero for the epidemic. Hopefully, Rogers can have some influence on his colleagues. I certainly hope so.

Just last night, I got word that a friend of a friend had to bury her 21 year old daughter who overdosed last Tuesday in her college dorm room. I spend a lot of time in the local recovery community here in Pennsylvania, and we’ve been burying a lot of kids lately, including the children of some of our most prominent and respected citizens.

Our country needs Congress to stop squabbling and get to work on this issue. I’m hoping the House Republicans can find a way to do that.

P.S. See also the story of Jessica Grubb.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.