Bipartisan Heroin Task Force to push agenda that includes ‘robust funding’ to address opioid crisis
The U.S. House of Representatives’ Bipartisan Heroin Task Force kicked off the new year on Wednesday by unveiling an expanded agenda that includes several new measures and a push for increased funding to help get a grip on the country’s deadly opioid addiction crisis.
It is a crisis that continues to claim lives. More than 63,000 Americans died from overdoses in 2016, according to statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among those deaths, about 42,000 involved opioids.
“It’s like a Vietnam War every year,” U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-3rd of Toms River, said Wednesday at a Washington news conference, where he and fellow task force co-chair, New Hampshire Democrat Annie Kuster, released the new agenda.
Among the 17 bills are measures intended to address the epidemic through support of prevention, treatment, recovery and law enforcement efforts.
Several bills were part of the task force’s original agenda released last summer, among them Jessie’s Law, which establishes best practices and standards for physicians and hospitals to ensure they have access to a consenting patient’s history of addiction before making a treatment decision.
The bill is named after Michigan resident Jessie Grubb, who died from a drug overdose in 2016. Grubb was recovering from heroin addiction but was prescribed a powerful opioid painkiller by a hospital’s discharging physician after she underwent surgery for a sports injury. She died from an overdose the following day.
Two of the agenda’s measures have already become law, including legislation signed by President Donald Trump on Wednesday evening. The INTERDICT Act provides millions of federal funds to U.S. Customs and Border Protection to pay for portable chemical screening devices and other equipment used to intercept and analyze fentanyl, a deadly synthetic drug that is 50 times more powerful than heroin.
The bill was authored by Pennsylvania Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, the Republican vice chairman of the task force, and is the first bill he sponsored to become law.
The “Stop OD Act” would create an $80 fine for people convicted of drug distribution or manufacturing crimes. The collected money would fund addiction prevention and education programs and the purchase of naloxone, an antidote for opioid overdoses.
Also in the agenda is legislation written by MacArthur to expand the ability of family members to use funds in employer-based health savings and flexible savings accounts for drug treatment, as well as a bill penned by Rep. Donald Norcross, D-1st of Camden, that would require the federal government to create guidelines for required courses on drug addiction for doctors and aspiring physicians before they can receive a license to prescribe powerful narcotics.
“Right now, some medical schools only provide four hours of addiction education over the entire four years of training. That’s simply not enough,” said Norcross, a vice chairman of the task force. “We can improve the guidelines for medical school courses and their curriculum to make sure future doctors are prepared for the realities of this crisis. Every step we take can help save lives.”
MacArthur said the bills that make up the legislative agenda were culled from dozens introduced in the House during the past year that relate to opioids or drug enforcement. He said the ones selected fit the group’s objectives and have the broadest bipartisan support.
The task force itself has grown to over 100 members, divided almost equally between Democrats and Republicans, making it one of the largest bipartisan caucuses in Congress and, by virtue of its size and makeup, an increasingly influential one.
MacArthur, who speaks weekly with House Speaker Paul Ryan, said the group’s goal is for leadership to agree to devote an entire week to the sole objective of advancing the entire agenda.
He and Kuster also said the group plans to make a major push for increased funding to address the epidemic.
“For us to have progress at the federal level in supporting families and local communities, we have to have funding, robust funding, tens of billions of dollars in funding,” MacArthur said. “So we will be asking our appropriators to make sure there is adequate funding for us to really do our jobs.”
Among the areas the task force wants money for is the Public Health Emergency Fund, which would benefit a wide variety of programs in the wake of Trump’s October public health emergency declaration, but has remained essentially empty.
The two co-chairs said the task force would present arguments that the epidemic has become a drain on the economy. For example, an estimated 6 million jobs are believed to be unfilled because potential workers fear they would fail drug tests.
″(Funding) saves lives, and it also saves money,” Fitzpatrick said during Wednesday’s news conference with MacArthur, Kuster and Norcross. “For every dollar we invest in treatment and prevention and education, we save exponentially more in the criminal justice system and even more in the health care system.”
Norcross said the growth of the caucus is both encouraging and tragic, as it reflects how the problem has continued to expand and claim lives.
“Our caucus is growing, and for good reason. There’s not a member in Congress who has not been part of a funeral (for a victim of substance addiction),” he said. “It’s not going away. People are dying. I just buried a friend of mine in the last month. It touches each and every one of us, and we can’t ignore it.”
MacArthur agreed, saying the addiction crisis is made up of personal and family tragedies multiplied by thousands and tens of thousands. While he sees some encouraging trends — drug use among teens has declined, along with the number of opioid prescriptions issued by doctors — that provide evidence that education efforts may be working, he warned that the country is far from declaring victory in the battle to get ahead of the epidemic.
He relayed his own story of a close friend and onetime co-worker who died seven years ago from a drug overdose.
“He was someone leading a productive, happy life,” MacArthur said. “It wound up spiraling down out of control.”
The epidemic has generated tens of thousands of individual stories like that one, he said.
“This is why we have a national crisis. It affects our families, our communities, our economy, but ultimately our fellow citizens,” he said. “All of us have a responsibility to do something about it.”