Erin Kelly, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — The Senate is poised to pass a bipartisan bill this week that would provide federal grants to states and local governments to combat the national epidemic of heroin addiction and prescription painkiller abuse.
Senators voted 86-3 on Monday to advance the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which would allow the attorney general to give money to programs that strengthen prescription drug monitoring, improve treatment for addicts, and expand prevention and education initiatives. A vote on final passage of the bill is expected later this week.
The bill, introduced by Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, has not yet been taken up by the House. An identical bill has been offered in that chamber by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.
Drug overdose has surpassed car crashes as the the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine. Opioid addiction is driving the epidemic, with nearly 19,000 overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers and nearly 10,600 overdose deaths related to heroin in 2014. The rate of heroin overdose deaths nearly quadrupled from 2000 to 2013 as many prescription drug abusers turned to heroin as a cheaper alternative that is easier to obtain, the society said.
The bill does not actually fund the $725 million in programs that it authorizes, which has been a source of complaint by Democratic senators and the White House. Senate Republicans last week blocked an effort by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., to add $600 million in emergency funding to the bill.
“There is simply no excuse for Congress providing emergency funding for the Ebola and swine flu epidemics, while ignoring an opioid crisis that’s killing a person a day in the Granite State,” Shaheen said.
GOP leaders said that Congress, in a massive spending bill passed in December, already appropriated more than $400 million in funds that are available now for programs to combat opioid abuse. There will be opportunities to approve more funding through the passage of 2017 spending bills, said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
“But it’s important we act on this legislation now,” McConnell said. “(The bill) will bring us closer to ending a national epidemic…It will help save lives.”
President Obama in early February announced that he was seeking an extra $1.1 billion in his 2017 budget request to Congress to pay for drug treatment for people addicted to prescription painkillers and heroin.
The Senate bill includes a provision to authorize the expansion of prescription drug monitoring programs, which are state-run databases that track the prescribing and dispensing of controlled prescription drugs to patients. The databases monitor information for evidence that patients are filling multiple prescriptions for painkillers from multiple doctors.
Non-profit groups that help prevent and treat opioid abuse would be eligible for federal grants along with states and local governments. Grant money could be used to help development drug treatment programs as alternatives to putting opioid addicts in jail.
Grants also could be used to help hospitals, clinics and pharmacies safely dispose of unwanted prescription medication. Special programs to help military veterans overcome their addiction to painkillers also would be eligible for federal funds.
The bill directs the Department of Health and Human Services to convene an inter-agency task force to develop best practices for prescribing pain medication.