Senate Approves Bill to Tackle Nation’s Heroin, Opioid Problem

Senate Approves Bill to Tackle Nation’s Heroin, Opioid Problem
Political Health

On Thursday, the Senate approved a bill aimed at tackling the nation’s growing painkiller- and heroin-abuse epidemic, but it may prove to be a useless effort.

Source: NAADAC
Source: NAADAC

In a near-unanimous vote of 94-1, the Senate passed The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016 (CARA). There’s just one little problem with the bill sponsored by Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio: there’s no new money to fund it, because of certain acts by certain political parties.

The White House said in a statement earlier this month that without the funding, the Senate bill would “do little to address” the ever-expanding opioid and heroin epidemic in the United States.

The statement reads:

“Moreover, rather than accelerate important policies like training health care providers about appropriate opioid prescribing, the bill includes an unnecessary feasibility study on the issue that would delay action.”

It’s unclear whether Obama will sign the bill into law. [1]

The bill is designed to direct drug policy away from punitive measures and toward a public health approach. White, rural areas have been hardest hit by the opioid and heroin epidemic, but heroin overdose deaths tripled between 2010 and 2014 among African-Americans. The overdose death rate among Hispanics rose 137%, while the rate among Native Americans climbed 236%, and the rates for whites shot up 267%.

Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse
Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse

Read: Health Officials Demand Black Box Warnings on Opioid Painkillers

Much of the opioid problem lies not in a lack of available treatment, but in the fact that the dominant treatment itself doesn’t often work. The bill emphasizes medication-assisted treatment, which supporters say has proven to be more effective in helping people with substance abuse problems. That form of treatment is largely frowned upon by a large part of the treatment community, however, which opposes using prescription medication to wean people off of addictive substances.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said ahead of the vote:

“This authorization bill, in conjunction with the $400 million appropriated for opioid-specific programs just a few months ago, can make important strides in combating the growing addiction and overdose problem we’ve seen in all 50 states.”

Unfortunately, $400 million is only about a third of what the White House says is needed to address the problem.

The bill was left largely unchanged during the often-heated debate among Republican and Democratic lawmakers, but several amendments were added, including one from Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) aimed at providing follow-up services to individuals who have received opioid overdose reversal drugs. [2]

If lawmakers can find new money for the bill, it would expand the availability of naloxone, the heroin-reversal drug that many police and fire departments across the country have been stocking up on. It would also improve state efforts to monitor and track the sale and illegal diversion of prescription drugs, while steering money towards treating jailed addicts instead of merely punishing them.

In addition, the bill would prohibit the Department of Education from asking about convictions for possession or sale of illegal drugs on the Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) form.

Several companion bills in the House of Representatives are still in committee.


[1] McClatchy DC

[2] The Huffington Post Politics

National Institute on Drug Abuse

National Institute on Drug Abuse