Senate passes sweeping bill to battle opioid epidemic

September 17, 2018

A Senate riven by disputes on a Supreme Court pick set aside the sniping long enough Monday to approve legislation to combat the opioid epidemic by limiting the runaway flow of addictive pills, expanding treatment and giving inspectors new tools to root out deadly fentanyl in the mail stream.

The lopsided 99-1 vote underscored the depth of the drug-overdose crisis that’s hammering every corner of the U.S. and resulted in 72,000 deaths in 2017, nearly 49,000 of which were from opioids.

“The scope is simply staggering,” said Sen. Gary Peters, Michigan Democrat.

The opioid bill packages proposals from 70 senators, giving them a chance to point to their efforts back home, as families and communities clamor for relief from a problem that’s so bad it’s denting the supply of available workers in some places.

“A comprehensive crisis demands a comprehensive solution. That’s exactly what this landmark legislation is,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Congress has pumped $7 billion into fighting the crisis over the past two years, mainly through state grants, though the new proposals make changes to policy and authorize new programs.

The package allows the Food and Drug Administration to require drugmakers to package certain opioids in three- or seven-day supply “blister packs” so patients don’t get more pills than they need and gives the National Institutes of Health authority to devote more funding to the development of non-addictive painkillers.

The legislation extends treatment option to addicted mothers and their babies, who may be born with withdrawal symptoms, and urges states to share information from their prescription drug monitoring programs, so they catch patients who are “doctor shopping” across borders.

Negotiators must smooth out a few differences between the Senate package and an opioids bill from the House, which acted in June, before President Trump can sign a bill into law. Still, senators savored their accomplishment, which won support from everyone except Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican.

“On this one we’ve had real bipartisanship,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, minutes after he accused Republicans of using “transparently partisan” tactics to nudge Mr. Trump’s embattled Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh toward the bench.

The House bill would lift a ban on Medicaid funding for mental health facilities with more than 16 beds, saying it’s an antiquated holdover from a time when the nation feared “warehousing” of people in asylums. The change would cost money, however, senators left it out of their bill, pending further negotiations on how to pay for it.

“Their bill is a good bill. I think combining it with ours will help make it stronger,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican and Senate Health Committee chairman who wants to settle on a unified package by the end of this week, so both chambers can approve a final version.

Both chambers agreed to include the STOP Act, a provision that requires the U.S. Postal Service to demand electronic data on foreign packages before they arrive at ports of entry.

Private couriers like UPS and FedEx already procure advanced data, which U.S. Customs and Border Protection uses to target suspicious packages that might contain fentanyl from clandestine labs in China and elsewhere.

All packages from China, and 70 percent of the overall flow, must have the information available by the end of this year, and 100 percent global compliance is due by 2021.

It is a major victory for Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican who offered the bill in 2016, as fentanyl-related deaths in his state skyrocketed.

Since then, lawmakers across the country have bemoaned the infiltration of synthetic opioids, which were tied to more than 29,000 deaths last year, according to federal data.

“We at least have to know what’s in these packages coming into our country, so law enforcement can stop some of this poison that’s overtaking our communities and robbing thousands and thousands of Americans of their God-given purpose in life. It’s not to be an addict, it’s not to overdose and die,” Mr. Portman said. “We can help.”

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