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  • Washington Highlights

    As Lawmakers Explore Federal Actions to Address Opioid Crisis, White House Declares Opioid Public Health Emergency

    Tannaz Rasouli, Sr. Director, Public Policy & Strategic Outreach

    The House Energy and Commerce Committee Oct. 25 held a full committee hearing on “Federal Efforts to Combat the Opioid Crisis: A Status Update on CARA and Other Initiatives” to examine how federal agencies are addressing the epidemic.

    In his opening statement, Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Greg Walden (R-Ore.) stated, “(L)ast year alone, opioid overdoses have claimed the lives of more Americans than the entire Vietnam War. In my home state of Oregon, more people died last year from drug overdoses than from car accidents.” Ranking Member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) added that “more than 1,900 people died from opioids last year” in his home state of New Jersey. Both leaders took the opportunity to highlight legislation enacted in the 114th Congress with provisions intended to address the epidemic, including the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) [see Washington Highlights, July 8, 2016] and the 21st Century Cures Act [see Washington Highlights, Dec. 9, 2016].

    Federal witnesses who testified from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) included Neil Doherty, deputy assistant administrator for the office of diversion control at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA); Scott Gottlieb, MD, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration; Elinore McCance-Katz, MD, PhD, the assistant secretary for mental health and substance use at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; Anne Schuchat, MD, principal deputy director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Nora Volkow, MD, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health.

    The HHS witnesses submitted joint testimony that outlined the department’s five-point opioid strategy, while testimony from the DEA focused on how the Diversion Control Division is working to use its criminal and regulatory tools to “identify, target, disrupt, and dismantle individuals and organizations responsible for the illicit distribution of pharmaceutical controlled substances in violation of the [Controlled Substances Act].”

    One day after the Energy and Commerce Committee hearing, the White House Oct. 26 announced the “declaration of a Nationwide Public Health Emergency to address the opioid crisis.” The declaration does not include any new funds but includes provisions which the White House says will:

    • allow “expanded access to telemedicine services;”
    • allow HHS to “more quickly make temporary appointments of specialists with the tools and talent needed to respond effectively to our Nation’s ongoing public health emergency;”
    • allow “the Department of Labor to issue dislocated worker grants to help workers who have been displaced from the workforce because of the opioid crisis, subject to available funding;” and
    • allow the “shifting of resources within HIV/AIDS programs to help people eligible for those programs receive substance abuse treatment.”