Congress moves towards approval of massive anti-opioid bill

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Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal.

Washington – Congress is finally close to passing a comprehensive bill to combat opioid abuse, combining law enforcement and public health measures, including making addiction services more accessible.

The U.S. House of Representatives approved legislation earlier this year aimed at combating opioid addiction, which has become an epidemic in Connecticut and most other states. But the legislation stalled in the Senate because Democrats objected to a provision they said would solely benefit a powerful advocacy group with deep ties to the pharmaceutical industry.

A compromise was reached in the Senate this week removing that provision. The remaining bill contains legislation introduced by dozens of lawmakers, including Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy.

It would stop the import of illegal drugs by facilitating cooperation between the federal Food and Drug Administration and Customs and Border Protection. The Postal Service would be required to do more to detect shipment of synthetic compounds like fentanyl, which often come from labs in China and Mexico and account for most of the increase in opioid fatalities.

The Opioid Crisis Response Act would also boost research on non-opioid pain treatments and make it easier for Medicare recipients to get substance-abuse therapy through telemedicine services. The bill would also direct the Department of Health and Human Services to undertake a pilot program of Medicare coverage for opioid addiction treatment.

The legislation would also lift a cap on the number of patients –from 100 to 275 — to whom a qualified doctor can prescribe drugs like buprenorphine, a drug proven effective at limiting opioid cravings and easing withdrawal.

The legislation, expected to be voted on in the Senate next week, was hailed by  health care advocates as a good step towards combating a scourge that has ravaged communities and families across the nation.

If approved by the Senate, as expected, it would be negotiated with the House-passed bill to create a final bill.

About 72,000 Americans  died last year from drug overdoses, most of them involving opioids.  In Connecticut, a total of 515 people died from accidental drug overdoses from January to June, 370 of them involving fentanyl.

Money not enough?

The bill would also authorize $500 million per year through 2021 for new grants to help states fight opioid addiction.

Connecticut received $5.5 million in both 2017 and 2018 in federal opioid fighting grants. That money has been used to pay for medication-assisted treatment using methadone and buprenorphine, and for access to Narcan, a medication used to block the effects of opioids, especially in overdose.

Federal grant money has also been used in Connecticut to establish a pilot program of “recovery coaches” in emergency rooms who try to enroll overdose victims in treatment programs.

While the bill has been criticized for not providing enough federal grant money to the states, James Siemianowski, spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, said his agency’s attitude “is that any additional money directed to this is helpful.”

Although it’s not clear how much the state will receive in new grant money, Siemianowski said the bill relaxes the requirements for how quickly the money must be spent.

“Currently any funding allocations have to be spent that year,” he said. “This will allow us to target the money over several years.”

But he considered it “unclear” if the new opioid-fighing federal money states will receive “is sufficient” to meet their needs.

The bill is a rare bipartisan effort in a chamber where a partisan rancor has deepened in an election year.

It contains a provision sponsored by Murphy that would promote the use of recovery coaches modeled after Connecticut’s program.

The legislation also included language from a bill sponsored by fellow Democratic senator Blumenthal that would require drug companies to disclose payments to nurse practitioners and physicians assistants and provide grants to pharmacies that increase their participation in federal prescription drug take-back programs.

Blumenthal was also a co-sponsor of a provision that would require the U.S. Postal Service to do more to detect shipments of synthetic opioids.

The Opioid Crisis Response Act would also authorize the Department of Health and Human Services to develop new grants aimed at supporting addicts in recovery and aiding their transition to independent living and jobs. And, it would develop a pilot program to provide temporary housing for those recovering from substance abuse.

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