Heroin ‘epidemic’ at center of brewing US Senate budget battle

FILE - In this Sept. 21, 2010 file photo, a Cleveland police officer looks over bags of heroin at a news conference in Cleveland. As state officials in Ohio look to tackle the issue of prescription drug abuse, the number of opiate overdose deaths in Ohio's largest county in one year mirrors the total statewide a decade ago. The Plain Dealer in Cleveland reports most Cuyahoga County communities have been affected by deaths from prescription painkillers or the street drug heroin. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta, File)

WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) – Millions of Americans are addicted to prescription pills, and switching over to heroin at alarming rates. By midnight, 78 more people will die of overdoses.

Now senators are pushing the Obama administration for solid plans to get a handle on the devastating growth of death and addiction.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked pointedly, “What is Health and Human Services’ plan to make sure opioids are prescribed more appropriately?”

Other legislators warned of the pharmaceutical industry’s complicit role in spreading the deadly “epidemic.”

HHS Sec. Sylvia Burwell testified before the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday, telling lawmakers her department is implementing a three-pronged plan, which includes: overhauling prescription guidelines, funding state- and community-based treatment programs, and expanding access to life-saving overdose drugs like Narcan.

A major part of Burwell’s plan also includes convincing Congress to approve “significant new” levels of funding for opioids and heroin treatment programs.

The ask: $1.1 billion for 2017.

Support for the increased funding appears bipartisan in the committee, with some members suggesting the department needs even more money to appropriately tackle the issue.

Republican Sen. Rob Portman called the metastasizing phenomenon “a crisis in our communities,” citing the overdose deaths of 2,300 people in his home state of Ohio.

Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey labeled the 160% uptick of deaths in his state over the past five years “an epidemic.”

Pennsylvania’s opioid-related deaths grew from 47 a few years ago to hundreds per year, said Democratic Sen. Bob Casey. He called the skyrocketing figure a “terribly significant problem” for the Keystone State and others around the nation.

While increased funding is popular in the upper chamber, competing ideas for solutions abound, which could complicate matters.

Portman happily reported during Thursday’s back-and-forth that the Judiciary Committee, down the hallway, had just passed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) by a unanimous voice vote. The Ohio lawmaker touted the bill’s focus on results, seeing as how “not all medication treatment programs are created equal … some are struggling.”

The possibility that fellow senators will play “political games” to kill CARA weighed heavily on Portman. The Ohioan predicted that the underlying program will require additional funding and worried it could draw troublesome amendments intended to bury the bill.

The unvoiced suggestion is that campaign and lobbying contributions from the pharmaceutical industry could potentially, and unduly, influence senators’ votes. Budget hawks could also create obstacles.

Burwell didn’t officially endorse CARA, but said “it aligns with the strategy” being supported by her agency.

Pharmaceutical companies may not like where the overall opioids conversation is trending in the nation’s capital.

Wyden pointed to “potential conflicts of interest” between pharmaceutical companies and their role in giving American health care patients their first taste of opioids, eventually leading to full blown addictions. To prove as much, the Oregonian lawmaker has requested an official investigation into the issue.

While steering clear of publicly indicting drug companies, Sec. Burwell did acknowledge that patients’ downward spiral often begins “after they’ve done a prescription drug.” To illustrate her point, Burwell shared the story of a woman who took painkillers after a wisdom tooth surgery and devolved into a debilitating health crisis.

Throughout the two-hour hearing, senators repeatedly shared personal encounters with addicts’ families, suggesting the topic has become one of personal significance.

Now the question is whether the bills — and their price tags — can pass.

Follow Chance Seales on Twitter: @ChanceSeales

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