White House to request $1 billion to counter drug abuse epidemic

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The White House on Tuesday proposed $1 billion in new funding over two years to fight heroin and prescription drug abuse. 

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The proposal in President Obama’s budget reflects an increased push to combat the opioid epidemic, one of the few areas where both parties see the potential for bipartisan action in Congress this year. 

Almost all of the new money, $920 million, would be for mandatory funding over two years for states to increase medication-assisted treatment, which also involves therapy, for people with opioid use disorders. 

The funding would help address what the administration says is a lack of treatment for the growing epidemic, which killed almost 27,000 people in 2014. More Americans now die from drug overdoses than from car crashes per year. 

Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia BurwellSylvia Mathews BurwellHHS launches contest to make bills simpler Obama administration takes step to reform Medicare payments Rubio breaks with GOP, backs Obama Zika request MORE said on a call with reporters that 2.2 million people need treatment for opioid abuse, but only about one million people are receiving it. 

The new funding would require approval from Congress, but officials pointed to bipartisan support for doing something about the opioid crisis. 

“We have a tremendous amount of bipartisan support around this opioid epidemic,” said Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellGOP mired in Zika dispute Judge Merrick Garland and the rise of super-PACs McConnell sets up vote to begin debate on defense policy bill MORE (R-Ky.) has worked in his home state to address the crisis there, and last week said that he hopes to move legislation by the end of the year. 

He pointed last week to efforts in the Judiciary Committee, where a bipartisan bill from Sen. Rob PortmanRob PortmanJuan Williams: Electoral map looks grim for Trump McConnell touts 'Senate squad' in Wes Anderson-style video Liberal super-PAC hits Johnson for supporting Trump MORE (R-Ohio) and Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseSenators take aim at 'armies of zombie computers' Dems pressure Obama on vow to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees Dem blocks GOP senator from moving district judges MORE (D-R.I.), called the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), is moving forward with consideration this week. 

On Tuesday, McConnell told reporters the Senate would act on the crisis in the "very near future" and that he had discussed the issue at a meeting with Obama.

Still, it is unclear whether McConnell and Republicans will go along with the sharply increased funding proposed by the administration. 

"I will review and discuss the President’s budget request with my colleagues as we continue to work on several proposals to address the epidemic," McConnell said in a statement to The Hill on Tuesday. 

The CARA bill, by contrast, would provide about $80 million in funding, while also working to make sure that existing funds are spent on high quality programs. 

The bill includes a range of initiatives including increasing education and prevention, as well as increasing the availability of naloxone, a drug to treat overdoses. 

The administration pointed out that Congress has already agreed to some increases for opioid abuse programs, boosting funding from $34 million to $127 million in December’s spending bill. The White House’s new proposal would bring the level much higher still, to about $500 million in each of the next two years. 

Portman, who is facing a tough reelection race this year, has championed his CARA bill. 

Asked if the administration supports the bill, Botticelli praised the intent and said he is working with the Judiciary committee, but stopped short of an endorsement. 

He said that he “appreciates[s] the work of Senator Portman and his leadership.” 

Burwell implied that the funding levels in CARA are not adequate, saying that “we are pretty certain that funding will be a fundamental part of making the kind of progress we need to make.”

“If the White House is serious about fighting the heroin epidemic, the president will signal his support for the bipartisan Comprehensive Addiction & Recovery Act,” Portman said in a statement Tuesday. “This is the only bipartisan legislation that includes a comprehensive and evidence-based approach to help communities combat this epidemic.”

He added: “I support providing additional resources to help fight this epidemic.”

Botticelli was also asked if the administration felt any responsibility for the epidemic getting worse on its watch. 

“We have begun to see signs of progress,” he said. “Prescription drug misuse is actually down among youth.”

But, he added: “Clearly we have substantial work to do.”

This story was updated at 5:00 p.m.