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House passes opioid package, which now heads to Senate

Prescription painkiller OxyContin is one of the drugs that health officials say have contributed to a rise in opioid addiction.
Prescription painkiller OxyContin is one of the drugs that health officials say have contributed to a rise in opioid addiction. along@kcstar.com

The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a measure on Friday to help fight heroin and prescription opioid abuse after Democrats dropped a demand that the proposal include nearly $1 billion for drug treatment services.

The legislation, which was crafted by a joint House-Senate committee, now goes to the Senate next week, where Democrats must decide whether to approve it even though President Barack Obama might not sign it into law because of a lack of funding.

Currently, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act authorizes nearly $200 million for a variety of programs aimed at curbing prescription opioid and heroin abuse. But Congress must appropriate the money at a later date.

Earlier this week, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Obama might not sign the bill if no funding was attached.

The legislation passed 407-5 on Thursday with lawmakers from both parties supporting the bill in a rare show of election-year bipartisanship.

The bill would provide resources to expand opioid prevention and educational efforts and to increase the availability of the overdose-reversal drug naloxone for police and first responders. The measure strengthens programs to monitor and track opioid prescription trends and boosts efforts to identify and treat incarcerated addicts.

Earlier this week, Democrats tried to add $925 million to the bill to pay for drug treatment services. The Obama administration had asked for $1.1 billion.

Republicans have rejected both funding requests, saying the House Appropriations Committee would provide $581 million to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and $90 million to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to address opioid abuse in their 2017 fiscal year funding bill.

Congressman Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee and led the committee that hammered together a compromise on the legislation, said the overwhelming support for the bill “underscores the urgency” of the prescription opioid and heroin crisis.

“I hope the Senate will swiftly follow suit. We must all come together, and get the job done. What we are doing will help save lives,” Upton said in a statement.

Public health officials dealing with a national increase in drug addiction were cautiously optimistic, despite Senate Democrats’ unease with the bill’s lack of funding.

Chrissie Juliano, director of the Big Cities Health Coalition, which represents 28 large public health departments, called the legislation a “first step” but said more money was needed.

“We look forward to working with congressional leaders in the coming days to find a way to ensure robust funding to accompany their response,” she said in a statement.

A popular class of painkillers, opioids include the illegal drug heroin as well as the prescription medications codeine, oxycodone, morphine and others. But they are highly addictive, and in 2014 they were involved in 6 out of 10 fatal drug overdoses in the nation, according to the CDC.

In Florida, heroin overdose deaths jumped 900 percent from 2010 to 2014, according to the Florida Medical Examiners Commission.

In Florida, heroin overdose deaths jumped 900 percent from 2010 to 2014, according to the Florida Medical Examiners Commission. The increase in heroin consumption has been linked to addiction that began with the overuse of prescription drugs.

Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Sarasota Republican who also represents Manatee County, called the House vote a “significant step toward breaking heroin’s deadly grip on America.”

Manatee County in 2014 had the highest rate of heroin overdose deaths per capita in the state.

“The Senate is all that stands between this bill and the president’s desk, and I urge our senators to take action as quickly as possible,” Buchanan said in a statement.

The Senate is expected to vote on the measure next week before its seven-week summer recess begins next Friday, and passage seems certain. When Democratic senators were unable to increase funding for the Senate opioid bill by $600 million, the legislation still passed 94-1.

More than 200 advocacy groups have expressed their support for the conference legislation, citing a need to address the problem sooner rather than later.

Countering the rise in opioid-related deaths has become a widely popular cause. Earlier this week, the Obama administration announced plans to allow doctors to nearly triple the number of patients to whom they can prescribe buprenorphine, a powerful medication to treat opioid addiction. The new rule, effective Aug. 5, raises that number from 100 to 275.

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