After Lots Of Nudging From New England, Congress Is Suddenly Moving On Opiate-Crisis Legislation

Originally published on May 9, 2016 2:51 pm

Welcome to opioid week in the U.S. House of Representatives.

That’s what House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has dubbed it. Members of Congress received word late last week, as they wrapped up their brief recess, that opiate-related legislation will go to the House floor this week. Details are still emerging; but this week promises to be a major step for the work of New England lawmakers on the issue.

If all goes as planned, the mixture of some 20 different measures will, by the end of the week, comprise a package to pair with the Senate’s Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), authored by Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. That bill passed the Senate almost unanimously in March.

A conference committee is expected to be assigned to forge a final law from CARA and what the House passes this week.

New England representatives have been pressing the issue since the start of the 2015-’16 legislative session—with considerable bipartisan support from the Midwest and other hard-hit areas. Some individual measures have already been passed. Still, it was a bit of a surprise when Republican House leadership seemed to move into high gear on the issue late last month. All at once, a series of bills suddenly flew through the approval process in three different committees: the House Judiciary Committee, Energy and Commerce Committee, and Education and Workforce Committee.

Perhaps Republican leaders wanted to show progress on something, with the budget appropriation process well behind schedule and little to show on other priorities. Or, maybe they want to change the subject from the current media obsession, over which GOP officials do and don’t endorse Donald Trump.

There is also some reason to believe that a real consensus has formed over the scope of the opiate crisis, and the need for Congress to address it.

Regardless of leadership’s motives, “opioid week” looks like a big political coup for New Hampshire Republican Frank Guinta, who is facing serious re-election challenges in both the primary and general elections. 

Guinta serves as chairman of the Bipartisan Task Force to Combat the Heroin Epidemic. Just before Congress broke for recess in late April, he held a press conference in Washington to draw attention to the series of bills coming out of committees.

They include his own Good Samaritan Assessment Act, which seeks to advance legal protections for those who administer Narcan, or other opioid overdose reversal drugs.

“I’ve been working hard with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to develop a number of measures that will improve the public response to the heroin and opioid epidemic gripping New England,” Guinta said in a statement to me. “I’m working to responsibly fund these measures, in order to ensure stable finances and effective programs that will help more people recover from addiction and lead productive lives.”

Another bill in the mix is one Democrat Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts co-sponsored with Republican Susan Brooks of Indiana, that would establish an inter-agency task force regarding opioid prescriptions. 

Katherine Clark has at least two in the mix. One is her bill to allow states to implement partial-refill plans, improving control over those prescriptions. Clark also co-sponsored “Lali’s Law,” with Republican Bob Dold of Illinois, to increase access to heroin-overdose antidote drug naloxone. 

Those and others were dumped into the schedule late on Friday, for potential consideration in the coming week.

A total of 23 bills, most related to the opiate drug problem or accompanying law enforcement measures, are now listed. Most of them have now been scheduled for votes on Tuesday and Wednesday by the House Majority Leader. 

But even that’s not the full scope of it. There may continue to be measures offered as amendments—including some reflecting items in the Senate CARA bill but not in any of the House bills. There may also be a push for additional funding, which some Democrats were disappointed at being left out of the Senate version.

And, nobody’s pretending that the resulting legislation will be anything close to comprehensive. As area lawmakers have repeatedly emphasized to me throughout the session, nobody thinks they are working on silver bullets that will solve the crisis. The hope is that each measure helps solve a piece of the large problem.

 

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