U.S. House task force unveils agenda for tackling opioid crisis
"It's an issue that needs to be tackled in pieces," MacArthur said Wednesday about the broad range of bills the task force plans to push. "There's no one component."
The task force's agenda includes MacArthur's Addiction Recovery Through Family Health Accounts Act, which seeks to expand the ability of family members to use funds in employer-based health savings accounts and flexible savings accounts for drug treatment.
Current federal law permits using money from those accounts to help cover treatment, but it restricts it to dependents such as children, spouses and other immediate family members. MacArthur's bill would extend the permitted use to treatment of extended family members, including nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, and others not living in the same immediate household.
Another bill, the Road to Recovery Act, sponsored by Fitzpatrick, who is a co-vice-chairman of the committee, would eliminate a decades-old federal restriction preventing drug treatment centers with more than 16 beds from billing Medicaid for residential treatment services.
The restriction, known as the Medicaid Institutions for Mental Diseases exclusion, was designed to prevent Medicaid funding from going to private mental health institutions accused of warehousing patients. But it has been cited by lawmakers and advocates as a major obstacle for people suffering from substance abuse disorders to receive inpatient treatment.
Other bills highlighted by the task force include a measure co-sponsored by Fitzpatrick — called the International Narcotics Trafficking Emergency Response by Detecting Incoming Contraband with Technology Act, or INTERDICT Act — that would give Customs and Border Protection "the latest in chemical screening devices and scientific support to detect and intercept fentanyl and other synthetic opioids," and a measure co-sponsored by Democratic New Jersey Congressman Donald Norcross to require the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to establish a Center of Excellence to help coordinate research about ways to reduce opioid use and alternative methods for treating pain.
MacArthur said the task force plans to push for these measures to advance out of House committees during the next several months so they can be considered by the full chamber, possibly together during the same week.
"It would allow the members to focus on them and all the different angles we're trying to take to try to get at this issue," he said, adding that several could be bundled together in a single bill.
No timetable has been established, but MacArthur said he'd push to get the bills on the House agenda before the end of the year.
"I'd love to do it before the August recess," he said.
More legislation could be added to the group's list, such as a bill limiting the initial dose of opioid painkillers doctors can prescribe to a seven-day supply or changes in heroin possession laws to better differentiate between drug users and dealers, MacArthur said.
"We're trying not to rush things," he said, adding that the group remains committed to working in a bipartisan manner to try to tackle the crisis.
"We're committed to doing things together."
That doesn't mean there aren't disagreements, notably over Republican efforts to overhaul the nation's health care laws and make major changes to Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for the poor and disabled.
The Obama administration's Affordable Care Act provided extra federal money to New Jersey and other states to expand their Medicaid programs to additional low-income earners. But the Republicans' Senate health care bill would roll back that extra funding and then cap the overall amount the federal government pays states based on their enrollment rather than their total costs.
Democrats in Congress have blasted the proposed changes, particularly the Medicaid cuts, arguing that many addicts are covered under the program and could potentially lose their access to treatment.
MacArthur, who is credited with rescuing the GOP's health care reform efforts after it nearly sank in the House, said he's had several conversations with Kuster and other task force members about the reform bills and the changes to Medicaid.
"I support the Medicaid reform, because I think it's going at an unsustainable level," he said. "But it's not lost on me that most people suffering from addiction are being treated with Medicaid dollars."
The U.S. House of Representatives' Bipartisan Heroin Task Force, led by New Jersey Congressman Tom MacArthur and Pennsylvania Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick, unveiled its legislative agenda for the remainder of the 115th Congress this week, and it's an ambitious plan that aims to tackle the drug crisis on multiple fronts.
Each bill has several bipartisan sponsors, and each seeks to address the opioid and heroin epidemic from a different perspective, such as enhancing law enforcement efforts and education and prevention programs, and making it easier for people suffering from addiction to get treatment.
MacArthur, a Republican who serves as the task force's co-chairman with Democratic New Hampshire Congresswoman Annie Kuster, said that there's no one solution to the crisis, and that the task force is focused on passing multiple measures to strike a balance between compassion for those suffering from substance abuse and assisting law enforcement efforts to stop the flow of illegal drugs into the country and combat street sales of the deadly narcotics.
The congressman said he continues to press for the creation of a dedicated fund to assist states in providing drug treatment separate from Medicaid. He said the health care bill he helped write includes $15 billion in state assistance for that purpose, and he has spoken to several Republican senators about its inclusion in the Senate bill.
Despite divergent views on some issues, MacArthur said the disagreements haven't prevented lawmakers on the task force from working together on issues and legislation where they can find compromise.
"We're committed to working on things we agree on," he said.
Kuster and Fitzpatrick echoed that sentiment Tuesday.
"The opioid addiction epidemic is a crisis that transcends politics,” Kuster said in a statement. “We know that tackling substance use requires a comprehensive approach that takes into account law enforcement, prevention, treatment and recovery. The legislative agenda we released today represents the common-sense approach that the Bipartisan Heroin Task Force is committed to pursuing."
“Drug overdoses involving prescription opioids and heroin have nearly quadrupled since 1999 and are now the leading cause of accidental death. In my home state of Pennsylvania, drug-related deaths and opioid addiction rates were among the highest in the country — rising 20 percent in one year, including a 50-percent increase in my district alone. It’s clear this epidemic is destroying precious lives and costing us resources,” Fitzpatrick said in a release. “Fighting back against this addiction crisis requires a multi-faceted approach and the bold, bipartisan legislative agenda laid out by the Task Force responds to the real-world concerns expressed by local lawmakers, community leaders and healthcare professionals across the county who endeavor to tackle this epidemic each day. Together, we can win this fight.”