Lawmakers sound alarm on drug overdose deaths

Lawmakers sound alarm on drug overdose deaths
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Members of both parties are turning their attention to fighting an alarming increase in the number of drug overdose deaths, in particular from heroin and prescription painkillers.

The issue has united Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDemocrats seize Senate floor to protest gun inaction: 'Put up or shut up' Democrats press for action on election security Hillicon Valley: Election security looms over funding talks | Antitrust enforcers in turf war | Facebook details new oversight board | Apple fights EU tax bill MORE (R-Ky.) with Democrats. And presidential contender Hillary Clinton is also putting a new focus on drug abuse.  

There were 44,000 deaths from drug overdoses in the U.S. in 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That figure is more than the number of deaths from firearms or car crashes. 

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And the problem is growing. Deaths from prescription painkillers have quadrupled since 1999.

This week, in the latest of a series of bipartisan steps on the issue, McConnell and Democratic Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyGreta Thunberg scolds Congress on climate action: 'I know you are trying but just not hard enough' Obama meets with Greta Thunberg: 'One of our planet's greatest advocates' Young insurgents aren't rushing to Kennedy's side in Markey fight MORE (Mass.) asked the Department of Health and Human Services to press the Surgeon General to issue a report and call to action on the issue. 

Markey said in an interview that the issue “has to be bipartisan” because drug abuse affects rural and urban areas as well as rich and poor. 

“Whether it’s Lexington, Massachusetts or Lexington, Kentucky, this epidemic knows no boundaries,” he said. “Senator McConnell and I believed that our response should know no political boundaries.” 

The problem has hit particularly hard in the Senate majority leader's home state, Kentucky, as well as northeastern states like Massachusetts. Around 1,000 people die each year from drug overdoses in both of those states. 

McConnell also joined with Democratic Sen. Bob Casey (Pa.) in March to introduce a bill directing HHS to develop a plan to address the problem of babies being born dependent on opioids — powerful painkillers — which occurs when a pregnant mother takes the drugs. 

McConnell invited President Obama’s "drug czar," Michael Botticelli, to join him at an event in Kentucky on fighting drug abuse last month. 

“This is a bipartisan issue that members of both parties have come together to fight head on,” McConnell said in a statement to The Hill.

“Fighting drug abuse will take all our efforts at the local, state, and federal level, which is why I invited National Drug Control Policy Director Botticelli to Kentucky to talk about how the federal government can play a role in a solution to our state’s drug problem.”

On the campaign trail, Clinton drew attention to drug abuse this week in Iowa, acknowledging that it is an unlikely subject for a presidential bid.

“When I started running, when I started thinking about this campaign, I did not believe I would be standing in your living room talking about the drug abuse problem, the mental health problem, and the suicide problem,” Clinton said at the home of two of the first gay men to get married in the state. 

“But I’m now convinced I have to talk about it. I have to do everything I can in this campaign to raise it, to end the stigma against talking about it.”

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has also been drawing attention to the issue with a series of hearings calling upon officials and community leaders to give perspectives on the problem.

“There’s definitely more interest in it in Congress,” said Kyle Simon, director of policy and advocacy at the Center for Lawful Access and Abuse Deterrence in Washington. “We’re really encouraged by the congressional hearings.” 

The Obama administration also ramped up its response in March. A new initiative includes training doctors on better prescribing practices, increasing the use of the drug naloxone to fight overdoses, and expanding treatment with medication and counseling.

Obama’s budget request also calls for $133 million in new funding to fight drug abuse. 

The issue of increased funding is where the potential for bipartisanship gets murky. 

Asked if McConnell supports the increased funding, a spokesman noted only that the appropriations process is still ongoing. 

Markey also introduced legislation this week to increase federal grants for state prevention and treatment programs. 

Markey said that once a Surgeon General’s report draws attention to the seriousness of the problem, other issues like funding can be addressed. 

“Senator McConnell and I agree that a Surgeon General’s report would highlight it as the national epidemic that it is, but out of that the discussion can flow,” Markey said.

“Once it’s elevated by that report we can discuss the other issues.”