Politics

The Faces Behind the Bipartisan Fight Against Heroin

   

UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 11: Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., right, and Ed Markey, D-Mass., leave a news conference in the Capitol's Senate studio to call for funding to address opioid abuse, February 11, 2016. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Manchin, right, and Markey, D-Mass., are among senators who want to address opioid abuse. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

An NBA player who whose heart stopped for 30 seconds during an overdose, a daughter who discovered her father dead, a sister whose brother overdosed before she even knew he was taking drugs and a father whose son died after years in and out of rehab — these are the faces that lawmakers see as they work for passage of what could be this year's most bipartisan legislative push.  

“Heroin doesn’t discriminate,” Rep. Robert J. Dold, a Republican from Illinois, told Roll Call. “Pick me a congressional district, I will find you a heroin problem.” “It’s the surprising stories,” agreed Sen. Mark S. Kirk, R-Ill. “A lot of the time it’s the star athlete who is injured in sports and is dealing with chronic pain and now will do almost anything to ease that pain.”  

As the Senate prepares to take up a bill this week that would provide grants to states, localities and nonprofit organizations battling opioid abuse, lawmakers point to increasingly personal stories that frame the issue for them.  

For Massachusetts Sen. Edward J. Markey, it's the story of Boston basketball star Chris Herren who played for the Boston Celtics and the Denver Nuggets. Herren was also a drug addict, expelled from the Boston College basketball team and school in 1995 for marijuana and cocaine use. When he played for the Celtics, he used oxycontin, vicodin and percocet. When he overdosed on heroin in 2008, he was effectively dead for 30 seconds, only to be revived by paramedics.  

Herren now heads a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating to about the consequences of drug abuse, and Markey is inspired by him every time he goes to make a floor speech. Markey stresses that the prescription drug crisis doesn’t discriminate between age, race, gender, socio-economic status, geography or employment. On Sunday, the senator brought together effected families in Massachusetts at a campaign rally for Hillary Clinton, who he has endorsed for president.  

Markey has teamed up with fellow Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia on the issue, with one of them giving a floor speech every day over the past two weeks to block the appointment of Dr. Robert Califf to become the next commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. Califf's appointment was eventually confirmed last week.  

In his filibuster of the Califf vote, Manchin read letters on the floor from West Virginians affected by a heroin overdose. Those include the story of Kylie on Feb. 11, a junior in high school who found her father dead after going through drug withdrawal nine years ago. “I remember exactly how he was laying when I found him,” she wrote to Manchin. “I remember everything. It’s my first thought in the mornings and my last thought at night. It changed my life, taught me a lot of life lessons but it also left me with a lot of heartache.”  

Rep. Bob Dold, R-Ill., left, and Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., talk during an event at the Chinatown Walgreens to unveil new efforts to combat opioid abuse, February 09, 2016. Walgreens will install drug disposal kiosks in 500 stores and also make the opioid antidote naloxone available without a prescription. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Dold, left, and Kirk talk during a Feb. 9 event to unveil new efforts to combat opioid abuse. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Kirk told Roll Call he was inspired by Mark Filler, whose son overdosed on heroin in 2014.  Jordan Filler fought a longtime battle with drug addiction, going to rehab several times before his death at age 23. His family has since started the Jordan Michael Filler Foundation and to bring a face to the cause, Kirk brought Mark Filler as his guest to the 2016 State of the Union.  

Kirk teamed up with Dold to join Walgreens in the unveiling of a new multi-state program to combat the heroin crisis by making naloxone, a medication used to block the effects of opioids, available to consumers over-the-counter in Illinois. They wrote a letter to CVS to do the same.  

Dold said he is inspired by Alex Laliberte, a "model student" who shocked his family and community when he died of a drug overdose in 2008. “He died before we even knew that he was using heroin, we didn’t have the chance to intervene properly,” his sister, Chelsea Laliberte told Roll Call.  

In college, she recalled, her brother would spend time in the hospital without explanation. Later she discovered it was due to withdrawal. She has since started a nonprofit for drug overdose, and Dold teamed up with Katherine Clark, D-Mass., on Feb. 23 to introduce Lali’s Law, which would increase access to naloxone nationally.  

“As I’m talking to my colleagues, there’s no doubt that they’re seeing this happen,” Dold said. “The addictive nature of it is unlike anything else that’s out there. When I go back and talk to folks, there’s so many families who have been impacted by it.”  

Contact Gangitano at alexgangitano@cqrollcall.com and follow her on Twitter at @alexgangitano.

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