Senate set to vote on plan to combat opioid epidemic
WASHINGTON – The Senate is ready to offer its own prescription for dealing with the nation’s deadly opioid epidemic.
Senators are expected Monday to approve a sweeping, bipartisan package that would tackle the crisis on multiple fronts, including new steps to stop prescription painkillers from flowing into the U.S. illegally and providing Americans addicted to the drugs with better access to treatment and prevention programs.
The Senate legislation will still need to be reconciled with a similar measure the House passed in June. But given the broad support for the proposals in Congress and at the White House, lawmakers said they are optimistic a package could be signed into law before the end of the year.
“There is a bipartisan sense of urgency because this is our worst public health epidemic, and it affects virtually every community,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and chairman of the Senate health committee.
Congress already has appropriated billions of dollars to help fight the prescription drug epidemic, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says resulted in a staggering 72,000 overdose deaths last year, a record.
Some $4.7 billion directed toward the opioid crisis was included in the omnibus budget bill approved in March, and Alexander said another $3.7 billion is likely to be appropriated for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
The Senate’s Opioid Crisis Response Act, which includes more than 70 proposals that grew out of a series of hearings, aims to close some of the legal loopholes and deal with regulatory issues that have allowed the drugs to proliferate and made it harder for those who are addicted to get treatment.
One of the bill’s key proposals seeks to curb the flow of fentanyl and other opioids coming into the U.S. via mail from places such as China.
Fentanyl, which is blamed for much of the spike in opioid overdoses, is a synthetic opioid that is 50 times more potent than heroin and often arrives in the United States via mail from Mexico and China.
“The opioid epidemic is being made worse by an influx of deadly synthetic drugs like fentanyl that is primarily being shipped into the U.S. through our own Postal Service,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who led an 18-month investigation into the illegal distribution of the drugs.
The bipartisan report that resulted from that investigation detailed how drug traffickers take advantage of weaknesses in international mail security standards to break U.S. customs laws and regulations by shipping drugs directly through the U.S. Postal Service.
One of the bill’s provisions – the Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention Act, or STOP Act – would close loopholes in existing federal law by requiring the Postal Service to collect electronic data on merchandise entering the country, such as who and where it is coming from, who it’s going to, where it’s going and what is in the package.
Commercial mail carriers such as UPS and FedEx already are required to collect such electronic information, while the Postal Service does not require electronic information for most mail entering the U.S. Because of the volume of mail flowing into the country, the Customs and Border Protection cannot manually scan these packages and stop illicit goods from crossing our borders.
Under the STOP Act, the Postal Service could face civil penalties if it fails collect the electronic data.
“The STOP Act will close this loophole in federal law, help keep this poison out of our communities and ultimately help save lives,” Portman said.
Other provisions in the Senate package would speed up the research and development of nonaddictive painkillers, expand access to programs for the prevention and treatment of opioid addiction, provide grants to states to buy back unused prescription drugs and offer recovery care at hospitals or pediatric centers for babies born suffering from opioid withdrawal.
Alexander described the development of nonaddictive painkillers as “the holy grail” in curbing the opioid epidemic.
“We sometimes forget there are 100 million Americans living with some pain, and there are 25 million who really hurt because they have chronic pain,” he said. “They need help, and we need more effective medicines and treatments for pain.”
In addition, the Food and Drug Administration would be authorized to require special safety packaging for opioids, such as sealing them in plastic blister packs and limiting doses to three to seven days. Some two dozen states already have limited the number of pills that can be prescribed at one time.
With the federal requirement, “the day would be over of getting a bottle of 60 pills, using a dozen and putting the rest in your bathroom medicine cabinet for your teenager to take to a graduation party,” Alexander said.
Senate staffers already have begun discussions with their counterparts in the House to work out differences between the two bills, Alexander said. The goal, he said, is to have the final package on President Donald Trump’s desk early next month.