WASHINGTON – The House has approved a mountain of bills addressing the nation’s opioid abuse crisis, fueled by lawmakers’ bipartisan craving for election-year action on the deadly epidemic. Yet the measures are leaving anti-drug advocates underwhelmed, and Congress won’t decide till later how much money it’s willing to provide.
By huge bipartisan margins, the House approved 18 drug-related bills this week setting up federal grants, new rules and studies of the problem, including three measures on Thursday. That harmony seemed worlds apart from the partisan disputes that have hindered recent congressional efforts to address the Zika virus, Puerto Rican debt and the poisoned water of Flint, Michigan.
The legislation was aimed at combatting the growing toll from misuse of opioids — addictive pain-killing narcotics and heroin — which in 2014 killed nearly 29,000 people, triple the death rate of 2000.
More than 2 million people were abusing prescription opioid painkillers and nearly 500,000 more were addicted to heroin in 2012, the government says, and both parties are eager to show voters they are addressing a problem that afflicts inner cities and rural communities alike. The bills’ sponsors included some lawmakers facing competitive re-election races this fall, including GOP Reps. Frank Guinta of New Hampshire and Bob Dold of Illinois and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, chief sponsor of similar Senate legislation.
“This problem is a problem for America. This problem has exploded,” Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., said during the week’s debate.
Joined by the White House, Democrats were backing the bills but also complaining that little would be achieved without money. President Barack Obama has proposed an additional $1.1 billion to address the problem.
The largest House bill, approved Thursday by 413-5, establishes grants worth $103 million annually over the next five years but provides none of the actual funds, leaving that for future spending legislation in which all federal programs will compete for funds. On Wednesday, Republicans rejected a Democratic effort to add $600 million in spending.
Without money, the House bills “would do little to help the thousands of Americans struggling with addiction,” the White House wrote in a statement to lawmakers.
Asked how much money will be available for the programs, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., whose panel oversees federal agencies’ spending, said, “It will be adequate.”
The measures would create grants for programs bolstering law enforcement, monitoring prescriptions and training first responders to use anti-overdose drugs like naloxone. It would be easier for some health care providers to administer overdose reversal drugs, anti-drug programs helping pregnant women and new mothers would be renewed, and curbs would be eased against partially filling some prescriptions — a way of reducing unused opioids available to drug abusers.
Advocates of drug abuse prevention and treatment programs said they were pleased Congress was addressing the problem but said they viewed the bills as only a start.
“Feel free to use the word ‘inadequate,’ but a step in the right direction,'” Marvin Ventrell, executive director of the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers, said of the resources the legislation would potentially provide.
Ventrell said the bills were “major in terms of message” because they were the first indications in years that Congress was moving toward addressing the issue.
“It’s a very important start, but we need dollars, we need statutory changes and we need sustained focus and attention,” said Robert Morrison, executive director of the National Association of State Alcohol and Drug Abuse Directors.
Morrison said a federal program offering $1.9 billion yearly in grants to states for substance abuse prevention and treatment has $483 million less purchasing power than it did a decade ago, thanks to inflation losses. He said he wants lawmakers to offer more help for new mothers who are addicts and more medications to treat drug abusers.
To the dismay of leading House Republicans, this week’s work on the bills was overshadowed by the GOP presidential campaign and the buildup to Thursday’s meeting between presumptive candidate Donald Trump and the party’s top elected official, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
Underscoring Republican efforts to draw attention to the legislation, Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong issued a statement addressed to journalists on Tuesday saying, “While politics may have your attention right now, we hope you’ll have time to review and write on this important and thoughtful action the House is about to take to tackle the disturbing opioid epidemic.”
The Senate used a 94-1 vote in March to approve its version of the legislation. GOP leaders hope the two chambers can send compromise legislation to Obama for his signature before Congress begins a lengthy summer recess in July.