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Heroin Epidemic Hearing Highlights Need for Resources

Ayotte, left, and Shaheen, right, testified at the hearing. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Lawmakers, state officials, advocates and law enforcement officers attempting to mitigate the heroin and prescription drug crisis plaguing the country had a message for Congress: We need your help.  

"Listen, we need financial help. The states cannot do this alone,” Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, said at a Senate Judiciary hearing Wednesday. He later added, “We’re scraping together pennies to try and make our treatment centers stand on their own.”  

McConnell Wants Heroin Legislation This Year 

Three senators from some of the hardest hit states joined Shumlin on the first panel of witnesses for the hearing. They urged their colleagues to take action on a piece of legislation before the committee, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act or CARA, which they believe will boost state and local education, prevention and treatment efforts.  

“I truly believe it can make a difference in the lives of the people I represent,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who first introduced CARA along with Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., in September 2014. Portman later told reporters he is frustrated Congress has yet to act on the bill, but is hopeful it will move this year. The addiction crisis is gaining currency in the presidential campaign, with candidates from both parties pledging to address the problem.  

The bill would direct the Department of Health and Human Services to convene an inter-agency task force to develop best practices for prescribing pain medications, which witnesses testified can lead to drug abuse and serve as a gateway to heroin.  

The bill would also authorizes a series of grants, including incentivizing states, localities and nonprofits to expand educational efforts to prevent abuse and provide a treatment alternatives to incarceration.  CARA would provide authorization for the $100 million included in the year-end spending package to combat heroin and opioid abuse, and make it more likely that the programs would be funded in the future.  

“It is an investment. It’s not inexpensive," Portman said. "But it’s an investment at a time when communities are desperate for resources.”  

Ayotte and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. also joined Portman at the hearing. New Hampshire and Ohio were among the five states with the most drug overdose deaths per capita in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. From 2013 to 2014, New Hampshire saw a more than 73 percent increase in overdose deaths, and Ohio experienced an 18 percent increase in overdose deaths over the same period.  

"I have never seen anything like this," Ayotte told her colleagues.  

Ayotte and Portman told reporters after outside the hearing that they have spoken to GOP leadership about CARA, who seemed open to taking it up. Portman pointed out that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's state of Kentucky has also been hit by the epidemic. Kentucky ranked among top five states with the most overdose deaths per capita, with more than 1,000 deaths in 2014.  

McConnell said at a news conference Wednesday that he hoped Congress would act on legislation combating the heroin and opioid epidemic this year.  

Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, also indicated the bill could move forward.  

“We might be able to move ahead," Grassley said. "At least I hope that’s the outcome after I talked to all my members."  

The senators stressed the need for the comprehensive bill, as well as more funds. Shaheen pushed her request for $600 million in emergency funds to address the crisis, as well as her bill addressing the drug case backlog that has resulted from law enforcement agencies not having the proper equipment to test heroin and other drugs.  

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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