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  • Washington Highlights

    Senate Committees Release Legislation, Hold Hearings on Opioid Epidemic

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

    Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chair Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-Wash.) April 17 released a bipartisan bill aimed at addressing the country’s opioid epidemic. This legislation builds on a bipartisan draft released April 4 [See Washington Highlights, April 13]. The authors say the bill, titled “Opioid Crisis Response Act of 2018” (S. 2680), includes “40 different proposals” and is “the result of seven bipartisan hearings over several months, and feedback from the public.”

    Chairman Alexander said, “The bill could help states and communities begin to bring an end to the opioid crisis by reducing the number of prescription opioids, stopping illegal drugs at the border, and accelerating research on non-addictive pain medicines.” Similarly, Ranking Member Murray said the bill “will offer families and communities much-needed tools and resources as they continue working to stop this epidemic and rebuild.”

    Among the proposals in the bill, the summary highlights provisions that would:

    • Give the National Institutes of Health the ability to use “other transactional authority” to respond to public health threats like the opioid epidemic;
    • Direct the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to report on the impact of laws regulating opioid prescriptions;

    • Require HHS to “provide technical assistance related to the use of alternatives to opioids, including for common painful conditions and certain patient populations;”

    • Create a loan repayment program for substance use treatment providers;

    • Allow physicians to prescribe medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for up to 275 patients.

    The Senate HELP Committee’s work tracks with work of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the House Ways and Means Committee, and the Senate Finance Committee. Notably, the Senate Finance Committee held an April 19 hearing titled “Tackling Opioid and Substance Use Disorders in Medicare, Medicaid and Human Services Programs.” The hearing featured Kimberly Brandt, Principal Deputy Administrator for Operations, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and Adm. Brett P. Giroir, MD, Assistant Secretary for Health, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health, Senior Advisor to the Secretary for Mental Health and Opioid Policy. During the hearing, members stressed that the approach to tackling the opioid crisis is a complicated one, necessitating all parties working together. As Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said, “Those of us looking for answers also have to deal with the paradoxical reality that cutting down the supply of opioids too sharply could drive even more people to heroin and other drugs, leading to even more overdose deaths. There is no easy way out of this crisis.”

    In advance of these efforts, the AAMC March 19 sent a letter to Capitol Hill supporting efforts to promote MAT and calling for increased investment in research, among other recommendations. [See Washington Highlights, March 23].

    Lawmakers in the House and Senate have already announced plans to markup opioid-related legislation. The Senate HELP Committee posted information on a markup scheduled April 24 and the House Energy and Commerce Committee announced it will hold a markup of opioid bills April 25.