WASHINGTON – With hold-your-nose support from most Democrats, the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly approved legislation on Wednesday to curb heroin and opioid abuse.
The vote all but assured that President Obama will sign the measure into law despite concerns about its lack of assured funding to address the nation’s growing drug problem.
The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act advanced in the Senate by 90-2 after Democrats followed their colleagues in the House of Representatives and dropped calls for the legislation to include additional funding.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called for Senate Democrats to pass the measure, citing support for the legislation by the National Association of Counties, the National League of Cities, the Fraternal Order of Police and more than 200 other groups.
In a statement, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., praised the measure as a significant advance in the drug fight.
“We have a major opioid addiction problem in Florida and throughout our nation, and this legislation is an important step to addressing this health crisis that is taking lives and destroying families,” Rubio wrote.
The legislation, crafted by a House-Senate conference committee, allows the federal government to provide state grants to fund a variety of programs aimed at curbing prescription opioid and heroin abuse.
Opioids are a class of narcotic pain medications that include prescription drugs like methadone, oxycodone, Percocet and codeine, along with the illegal drug heroin.
From 2000 to 2014, the rate of opioid overdose deaths increased 200 percent, sparking a nationwide crisis that has captured the attention of police and politicians alike.
Today, an estimated 2.1 million Americans are addicted to opioids, including about 467,000 addicted to illicit opioids like heroin, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health.
The bill would expand opioid prevention and education activities, boost efforts to identify and treat incarcerated addicts and provide police and first responders with more naloxone, a drug that blocks or reverses opioid overdoses. The legislation also would strengthen state programs to monitor and track opioid prescription activity and allow nurse practitioners to prescribe buprenorphine, a drug that fights opioid addiction.
But to fully fund those initiatives, Congress will have to appropriate much more money after it returns from the summer recess in September, because the measure authorizes only $181 million in funding.
In February, Obama asked Congress for $1.1 billion in emergency funding to assist Americans caught in the grip of heroin and prescription opioid abuse. But last week, Republicans on the conference committee blocked efforts by Democrats to add $925 million in funding for the bill.
Republicans have called for providing $581 million to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to address opioid abuse in their 2017 fiscal-year funding bill.
On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called the opioid legislation “a missed opportunity to do something substantive.”
“Authorizing legislation is a start,” Reid said, “but without resources, it’s very, very meaningless . . Without real funding this legislation is far from adequate.”
But faced with the prospect of leaving for the summer with nothing to address the nation’s growing drug problem, Reid joined other Democrats in voting for the measure despite their concerns.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who also voted for the measure, said it was “barely a symbolic step.”
“The rhetoric on the floor today and throughout our consideration of this bill, unfortunately, is unmatched by real dollars,” Blumenthal said Wednesday. “Until we commit resources, our words will be a glass half empty.”
Medical and drug prevention experts were equally tepid in their support for the legislation.
In a statement on behalf of the Coalition to Stop Opioid Overdose, R. Corey Waller, an addiction specialist in Grand Rapids, Mich., urged the Senate to pass the measure even though the group was “disappointed” that the bill lacked the funding to “meaningfully address the opioid crisis.”
“The cost of the opioid epidemic is too high to continue without real legislative solutions: every day that we put this off we leave hundreds of thousands without treatment and put thousands of lives at risk,” Waller’s statement said.
Dr. Andrew Kolodny, executive director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, said the group also supported Senate passage and wants President Obama to sign the legislation; which he called “better than nothing.” He said the measure “will have very little impact without real funding.”
Kolodny also worries that Republicans seeking re-election will trumpet the bill on the campaign trail this summer and could return to work in September and not provide any additional funding.
“It does worry me,” said Kolodny, who’s also chief medical officer for Phoenix House, a national nonprofit addiction treatment agency. “There’s a very big risk that after the election we will not see members of Congress coming back and appropriating the funding that’s needed.”
The legislation is important for Senate Republicans, like Rob Portman of Ohio and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, who face tough re-election battles in states hit hard by the heroin and opioid problem.
On Tuesday, Ayotte called for passage of the conference bill, arguing that she would fight for more funding later. She said failure to pass the bill would be “doing a great disservice to the American people.”
“It’s time for us to rise above the politics and pass this legislation,” Ayotte said.