House turns focus to opioid abuse

House turns focus to opioid abuse
© Greg Nash

The leaders of the House’s bipartisan panel on opioid abuse are charging forward with a major legislative package they hope will mark one of the largest federal commitments to date on fighting addiction.

The group, led by Reps. Frank Guinta (R-N.H.) and Annie Kuster (D-N.H.), will formally endorse 15 bipartisan bills on opioid abuse Thursday. The legislation includes $85 million in local grants and $10 million for prescription drug monitoring programs, which Guinta and Kuster hope will become the framework for the broader House bill slated to reach the floor next month.

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The House is entering the debate on opioids that last flared in the Senate two months ago, when members reached a rare agreement and approved a bill 94 to 1. The House is now moving forward with its own version, which Guinta said he hopes will take an even deeper approach.

“When leadership looked at this, they said, we have an opportunity to not just pass [the Senate version], but strengthen it,” Guinta said.

GOP leaders are planning for a vote on the House floor the first week in May, teeing up an accomplishment for members to tout on the campaign trail ahead of the November election.  

Guinta is facing a tough reelection race, and Kuster — while considered to have a solidly Democratic seat — is facing a seasoned challenger who was once the New Hampshire state legislature’s House majority leader.

In fact, many of the bills being endorsed by the task force come have Republican co-sponsors facing difficult races this year: Reps. Barbara Comstock (Va.), Bob Dold (Ill.), Ryan Costello (Penn.), Tom MacArthur (N.J.) Mike Coffman (Col.), Alex Mooney (W.Va.), Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) and Bruce Poliquin (Maine).

All eight members are either in competitive races or ones that could become competitive, according to the Cook Political Report. 

The Senate’s opioids bill has already been featured on campaign ads from vulnerable incumbents Sens. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanWATCH: Sen. Flake: “More doubtful” North Korean summit will happen  Lobbying world Trump-backed congressman wins Ohio Senate primary MORE (R-Ohio) and Pat Toomey (R-Penn.).

Legislation is expected to head to the House floor the first week of May, and as many as eight bills could be voted on. The final bill will be the work of at least four House committees, Guinta said, pointing to Energy and Commerce, Judiciary, Ways and Means and Education and the Workforce.

In a 50-minute joint interview with The Hill, both Guinta and Kuster said they have done a deep dive into the complex world of opioids policy over the last year. Kuster jokes that she has a “PhD in heroin,” but both are serious about what’s at stake.

“I spend more time on this issue than any other issue,” Guinta said, calling it the No. 1 issue in his state.

Guinta and Kuster first partnered up last fall on an attempt to tackle mental health problems in New Hampshire, though their work quickly shifted to opioids abuse. Their early conversations took place mostly on their weekly plane rides home, which they often shared with Sens. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by CVS Health - A pivotal day for House Republicans on immigration Overnight Defense: Senate confirms Haspel as CIA chief | Trump offers Kim 'protections' if he gives up nukes | Dem amendments target Trump military parade GOP, Dem lawmakers come together for McCain documentary MORE (D-N.H.) and Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteThe Hill's Morning Report: Koch Network re-evaluating midterm strategy amid frustrations with GOP Audit finds US Defense Department wasted hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars US sends A-10 squadron to Afghanistan for first time in three years MORE (R), another New Hampshire member in a competitive reelection race.

In the last several months, the opioid task force has grown to nearly 80 members and has become a key voice in the GOP leadership discussion on the upcoming package.

The GOP’s approach to the drug abuse epidemic, as well as the ramped up response from the Obama administration, has been far more aggressive than in the past.

The government’s response has lagged, in part, because lawmakers didn’t grasp the depth of the issue, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP lawmakers want Trump to stop bashing Congress Parkland father calls out Trump, McConnell, Ryan after Santa Fe shooting Overnight Finance: House rejects farm bill in conservative revolt | NAFTA deal remains elusive as talks drag on | Dodd-Frank rollback set for House vote MORE (R-Ky.), recently said. 

“I naively thought two years ago, this was a northern Kentucky problem,” McConnell said this week in an interview with a local news station. “Figuring out what to do at the federal level to be helpful was not as simple as it sounds.”

The slow pace of action has drawn fierce criticism from advocates, particularly the families of people who have died of overdoses, who say national and state leaders have ignored the warning signs. Many say the Obama administration and the GOP-led Congress are not thinking big enough to tackle the problem.

“I don’t think the speed at which the solutions are being adopted are even close to what they should be based on the enormity of the issue,” said Gary Mendell, the founder and CEO of an anti-addiction group called Shatterproof. “It’s not right, in relation to the amount of suffering that’s going on.”

A spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control said it’s unclear when opioid abuse was first declared a public health crisis. But experts say they remember being troubled by trends more than a decade ago.

Leo Beletsky, a drug policy expert and law professor at Northeastern University, said he noticed opioid use reaching a crisis point in 2006.

“A response has been very sluggish,” Beletsky said. “The administration has been really playing it safe in a lot of ways. …  It has been theoretically on the top of their agenda, but again, we’re just seeing the action.”

A key issue on the federal level is funding. In a speech last month, Obama described the opioids crisis as "grossly under-resourced," and said any efforts to stop the epidemic won't matter "until the money comes through."

In the weeks before Obama's remarks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced steps to encourage prescriber training on opioids. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has long been at the center of criticism over opioids, also promised a "sweeping review" of its policies

Guinta and Kuster both hope they’ll have luck as Congress writes spending bills this year because the House Appropriations Chairman is on their side.

Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) has quietly become one of the strongest national advocates for fighting opioid abuse. He was also one of the earliest. In 2003, Rogers was so alarmed by a story about opioids-related deaths in his local newspaper that he started asking around if the reporter made a mistake. 

When he learned it was true, he launched a group that is now a leading voice on the issue: Unlawful Narcotics Investigations, Treatment and Education, nicknamed Operation UNITE.

At the group’s fifth annual summit last month, Rogers stood before the 2,000-person crowd and offered fresh hope for the decades-long fight against opioid addiction.

“A vision without funding is a hallucination,” Rogers declared, prompting laughter and applause from the crowd. Guinta, who was standing about five feet away and about to give a speech calling for more funding, said he felt instant relief.

Danielle Smooth, a spokeswoman from Rogers’ personal office, who attended the speech, said it’s a line he has often repeated over the years. Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for the Appropriations Committee, declined to comment on funding levels, but added, “clearly, my Chairman supports efforts to address the opioid crisis.”