The Senate on Thursday passed 94-1 a bill that aims to combat the nation’s opioid drug and heroin epidemic. The legislation, known as the Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act, would allow the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services to provide grants for states to expand treatment efforts and access to overdose-prevention drugs.
The legislation "will help tackle this crisis by expanding education and prevention initiatives, improving treatment programs and bolstering law enforcement efforts,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the Senate floor before the vote.
Ben Sasse, R-Neb., was the only no vote.
“I'm distressed by opioid abuse as a dad and citizen,” he said in a statement. “Families, non-profits and government at the state and local level can help. I'm not convinced fighting addiction — as opposed to stopping drug traffickers — is best addressed at the federal level.”
In a press conference after the vote, the bill’s primary backers expressed hope that the overwhelming Senate support would spur the House to quickly pass their own version of the bill.
“I think that gives us the opportunity to get this through the House with the kind of numbers we saw today in the United States Senate,” Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said.
The Senate spent nearly two weeks debating the legislation (S 524), and on Wednesday reached an agreement on amendments, adopting language intended to strengthen consumer education about opioid abuse and provide follow-up services to people who have received overdose reversal drugs. Last week, senators adopted an amendment that would prevent at-risk patients from getting prescriptions from multiple doctors, and another that would give the Justice Department additional authorities to combat drug trafficking.
After a heated partisan debate over how to fund the new programs, the Senate ultimately rejected a Democratic amendment to include $600 million in emergency funding. Republicans argue that the fiscal 2016 omnibus (PL 114-113) included funding that can be used, and that more will be found during this year’s appropriations process.
“This authorization bill, in addition to the $400 million opioid-specific programs just a few months ago, can make important strides in combating the growing addiction and opioid problem we’ve seen in every one of our states,” McConnell said.
Democrats, including one of the bill’s co-sponsors, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said they would try to hold Republicans to their promises about funding.
“I hope that the Republican leadership, as we move through the appropriations process, will honor some of the statements and commitments that they made on the floor about making sure that CARA does indeed have robust funding,” Whitehouse said at the press conference after the vote.
The bill now awaits action in the House, where companion legislation (HR 953) awaits a hearing by the Judiciary Committee.
At their press conference after the vote, Portman and Whitehouse urged the House to quickly pass the legislation.
“I cannot think of a bill that has been better prepared for House action,” Whitehouse said. “There is unprecedentedly broad support for this bill, and I hope that they don’t stall it and fiddle around with it.”
Portman said that he had reached out to Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., on Thursday to convey his hope for House action. But he also hinted that the House may want to take time to deliberate and make tweaks to the legislation.
“Certainly they may want to have some more input and discussion, but this has been a collaborative process from the start,” Portman said.
He also noted that the House legislation has 92 co-sponsors. While only 25 of them are Republicans, he was optimistic that it would gain broad support.
Outside groups praised the bill’s passage, including the “doctor shopping” provision that would allow Medicare to designate single prescribers for at-risk patients.
“This provision will ensure Medicare patients get needed pain relief without being exposed to dangerous amounts of prescription drugs,” said Cynthia Reilly, director of Pew’s prescription drug abuse project.
But others, including the Obama administration, have expressed concern that the legislation focuses too much on conducting studies to compile more information about addiction and treatment, which critics contend is already well-known.
Whitehouse contended that the studies would aid federal agencies as they carry out their new authorities, and that the bill, if funded, would be mostly ready to implement.
“I think, frankly, it’s the money more than the studying that’s going to delay implementation,” he said.