Opioid Epidemic Enters Funding Debate

Some Democrats said the GOP proposal was "smoke and mirrors"

From left, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, have been fighting for money to combat the opioid epidemic. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
From left, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, have been fighting for money to combat the opioid epidemic. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted September 26, 2016 at 2:21pm

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s proposal to keep the government funded included one below-the-radar addition: funding to combat the opioid epidemic. While senators in both parties support addressing the issue, the move had some Democrats crying foul.

The Kentucky Republican unveiled last week a draft continuing resolution to fund the government through Dec. 9, after spending talks stalled between Senate leaders. His proposal included $37 million in annual funds for implementing the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, or CARA, which became law in July.

CARA authorizes a series of grants aimed at developing treatment programs, training first responders, and fostering inter-agency cooperation.

[ Is Congress Headed Toward a Government Shutdown? ]

Some Democrats panned McConnell’s proposal as providing inefficient funds for the CARA bill, which authorized $181 million. Since the $37 million is for the entire year, they say that roughly one fifth, or about $7 million, can actually be distributed in the 10 weeks that the CR is in effect.

Communities in New Hampshire and across the country desperately need resources to address this epidemic — not smoke and mirrors,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. “Despite the urgent pleas of first responders and treatment providers, this bill provides virtually no new funding to address this epidemic and instead, plays an elaborate shell game with the federal budget.”

Shaheen has been pushing for $600 million in emergency spending to combat the crisis, which has hit her state particularly hard. In 2014, the Granite State had the second highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

One senior Democratic aide suggested it is no coincidence that the opioid money could help GOP senators in tight re-election races.

“This proves Republicans are only interested in making campaign ads, and not fighting the opioid crisis,” the aide said. “This is a cynical ploy, even for them.”

The spokesman for Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, one of the CARA sponsors, fired back, accusing Democrats of playing politics.

“It’s pathetic that they can’t set politics aside and just focus on helping people suffering from addiction,” Kevin Smith said.

Portman and GOP senators from New Hampshire and Pennsylvania are facing tough re-election challenges. Their states are all in the top five states with the highest overdose death rates. Kentucky, McConnell’s home state, has the highest death rate.

[ Mitch McConnell: Time to Act on Bill That Provides Critical Funding ]

But some of the GOP senators have taken heat on the campaign trail for voting against a broader spending bill last year that included funds to fight opioids.

Republican Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire have been pushing for CARA to be fully funded in government spending bills. 

Portman met with top GOP negotiators over the last three weeks, including McConnell, Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran of Mississippi, and House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers of Kentucky. He has also met with McConnell’s staff, and Appropriations Committee staff, including the committee staff director. 

“Implementing a new program under a continuing resolution is very rare,” said Stephen Worley, the spokesman for the Senate Appropriations Committee, citing Portman and Ayotte as key advocates for funding. “The committee agreed that this was a worthy exception to normal practice.” 

Although some Democrats argue including what they term minimal funding is a political tactic, one advocate and former Portman staffer said including some funding can help jumpstart CARA programs.

“This 10 weeks of startup time, this down payment time, will allow us to see the grants be delivered to communities much faster,” said Jessica Nickel, executive director of the Addiction Policy Forum.

Democrats Insisting on Flint Aid in CR Indicates Last Opportunity ]

Nickel worked for Portman when he served in the House. She said the funds could help agencies hire staff and start administrative work, so that they can hit the ground running when more funding is allocated in a year-end spending bill.

Nickel said that outside organizations working to fight the epidemic began hearing from groups on the ground in hard-hit states that funding is necessary. On Sept. 20, two days before McConnell unveiled his funding plan, Addiction Policy Forum organized more than 100 groups to sign onto a letter to Senate leaders urging them to include CARA funds in the continuing resolution.   

The advocates then worked the phones, urging Senate leaders and staff to include some funds in the continuing resolution.

“We did triage kind of quickly,” Nickel said.

Nickel said it was unfortunate that politics was seeping into the funding debate. She noted the effort has been largely bipartisan, citing Shaheen and Democratic Sens. Sheldon White House of Rhode Island and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota as key partners.

“We’re really trying to make sure everyone keeps focused on the issue at hand, instead of the election coming up,” said Nickel.

Prospects for McConnell’s CR remain uncertain. Democrats have said they will not support the bill because it fails to include funding for Flint, Mich., which has been dealing with water contamination.

Contact Bowman at bridgetbowman@rollcall.com and follow her on Twitter @bridgetbhc.