Congress sends first major opioid bill to Obama’s desk

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The Senate on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a bill aimed at fighting opioid addiction, reaching the finish line on legislation that’s likely to be one of Congress’s top achievements this year.

With the 92-2 vote Wednesday evening, the bill now heads to President Obama’s desk after nearly a year of negotiations.

The legislation’s fate had been uncertain until almost its final hour as Democrats dug in their heels to try to secure more treatment funding. Top Senate Democrats announced for the first time Tuesday they would support the bipartisan bill even without the approximately $900 million they said was needed to expand treatment nationally.

Lawmakers of both parties have said the opioid package, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), marks Congress’s first-ever attempt to address the rapidly escalating public health crisis. 

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 this year 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 McConnell (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 from Congress has, at times, 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,” Gary Mendell, the founder and CEO of an anti-addiction group called Shatterproof, told The Hill earlier this year. “It’s not right, in relation to the amount of suffering that’s going on.”

Public health advocates have lauded the bill as a crucial policy shift, recognizing addiction as a disease rather than a law enforcement problem.

The legislation would also help expand access to treatment by allowing nurses and physician assistants to administer medication to help beat addiction.

It also creates the nation’s first mandate for doctors to cross-check patients’ opioid history with prescription drug monitoring programs. Under the bill, it applies to doctors who serve patients in the government’s veterans program, though advocates hope to see it expanded nationwide.  

GOP Sens. Ben Sasse (Neb.) and Mike Lee (Utah) were the only senators to vote against the legislation. 

But many Democrats are still publicly fuming about the GOP’s decision not to include emergency funding.

“This has a few good things, but it is not close enough,” Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the chamber’s No. 3 Democrat, said on the floor Wednesday.

Another senator, Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), said the bill “is barely a symbolic step.”

“Until we commit resources, our words will be a glass half empty,” he said.

The White House said that the president will sign the bill even though it “falls far short” of the resources needed.

“While the President will sign this bill once it reaches his desk because some action is better than none, he won’t stop fighting to secure the resources this public health crisis demands,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement.

The bill’s passage narrowly avoids what would have been an embarrassing blow to the GOP: Republican leaders moved opioids to the top of their legislative to-do list in January, but a major fight over funding has stalled the bill for months.

The bill also delivers key campaign wins to vulnerable GOP senators like Rob Portman (Ohio), a longtime champion of the bill. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) has also been vocal in her support for the legislation as she hopes to hold her seat.

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