Congress finally begins to address opioid abuse

Following 18 months of sluggish deliberation on Capitol Hill, the Senate passed last week, by a vote of 92-2, a bill to address the proliferation and intensification of domestic opioid abuse.

The sprawling legislation, know as the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016, authorizes the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to award grants to stymie the dual crises of heroin use and prescription opiate overuse.

Funds will be used to expand the availability of naloxone to emergency responders; improve systems for monitoring and limiting the distribution of legal pharmaceuticals; work to identify and clinically treat addiction in the prison population; and eliminate questions regarding drug-related convictions on FAFSA applications.

Especially prominent is a section mandating that the Secretary of DHHS, Sylvia Burwell, work with leaders from the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to convene a task force of medical professionals to formulate a series of best practices on pain management. That clause seems to nod to the rampant overprescription of opiate treatments by specialists, general practitioners, and nurses, which is widely viewed as a key driver of addiction and overdose.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the sale of prescription opiates nearly quadrupled between 1999 and 2014, despite no change in the amount of pain that Americans report to their healthcare providers. That quadrupling of sales is mirrored in the multiplication of deaths resulting from opioid overdose during that period. At the turn of the century, the mortality rate stood at 2/100,000; by 2014, the figure had leapt to 8.5/100,000, with nearly half of those deaths stemming from prescription (as opposed to illicit) abuse. Burwell’s task force, then, should play a critical role in orchestrating the rapid intervention necessitated by this burgeoning public health crisis.

The legislation’s twin goals, criminal justice reform and the destigmatization of mental healthcare, have been widely regarded as presenting opportunities for cooperation and compromise in a bitterly divided legislature. Since its introduction to the Senate Judiciary Committee in February of 2015, the bill has been cosponsored by half of the members of the Senate. Backing came initially from Democrats and Republicans representing states in the north and east, including portions of Appalachia and the Rust Belt, where statistics from CDC indicate that opioid overdoses are most acutely on the rise.

The legislation has left much to be desired, especially from those who viewed the CDC’s trendlines as representing an emergency whose robust address would carry a hefty price tag. Even so, President Obama has already announced that he will sign the bill when it crosses his desk. Here’s to hoping that his signature will mark the conclusion of an introductory discussion, and the opening of a first chapter in our attempts to change the way that we perceive and treat illness in this country.

Patrick Kurth attended Fordham College at Lincoln Center to study humanitarianism and human rights. His interests are diverse: he has recently contributed works on psychotraumatology, food anthropology, and LGBTI activism to TEDx, the School for International Training, and the World Policy Journal, respectively. Mr. Kurth presently lives in Brooklyn, where he can be found taking the metropolis at his own pace.

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