House overwhelmingly passes opioid bill

House overwhelmingly passes opioid bill
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The House on Friday almost unanimously approved legislation to combat opioid overdoses after Democrats dropped their opposition to the bill at the last minute. 

The 407-5 vote all but assures that the legislation will sail through the Senate and head to President Obama’s desk next week. The bill, a top priority for GOP leaders, is expected to be one of Congress’s biggest achievements this year.

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One of the leaders of the effort, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), called it “the most serious and comprehensive effort ever untaken by this body to tackle this problem.”

The bill’s fate had been in flux as recently as Thursday because Democrats said it provided far too little funding for treatment, and they had refused to sign off on the final report.

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.), the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, announced just minutes before the vote that he has decided to support the package “after much thought.”   

“It is not perfect, and does not do nearly enough from a funding perspective, but it makes some important steps that will allow us to begin to address the opioid addiction crisis that is impacting our nation,” Pallone said.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also signaled that she would support the bill on the floor Friday. She said she hopes the bill “is just the first step” and that the GOP will commit more funding “in the very, very near future.”

Many Democrats cited the new measures announced by the Obama administration this week, which includes expanding access to anti-opioid medication.

The White House’s package included a new policy giving doctors more leeway in prescribing a powerful medication to help treat addictions, something that was once included in Congress’s negotiations.

Democrats also pointed to promises from the House Appropriations Committee to deliver funding later this year. This week, the committee released a proposed health spending bill that would contain an unprecedented $500 million to fight opioid abuse.

“We need to hold Republicans feet to the fire” on funding,” Pallone said. He added that the legislation “is only a small step at a time when the American people need us to run.”

The GOP had intended to pass the bill long before the November elections and deliver a boost to vulnerable Republicans such as Sens. Rob Portman (Ohio) and Pat Toomey (Pa.), who have both featured the bill in campaign ads.

Leadership had planned to vote in early May, teeing up an accomplishment for members to tout on the campaign trail. 

But the fight over funding threatened to doom the bill, surprising longtime policy watchers who expected the legislation to coast through both chambers as the country faces an epidemic of opioid overdose deaths.