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Senate Panel Unveils Draft Bill to Combat Opioid Addiction

HELP Committee expected to discuss legislation next week

The Senate HELP Committee, led by Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander and Washington’s Patty Murray, has already held six hearings on the opioid crisis so far this Congress. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The Senate HELP Committee, led by Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander and Washington’s Patty Murray, has already held six hearings on the opioid crisis so far this Congress. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Senate health panel on Wednesday released a discussion draft intended to curb opioid addiction. The development comes as other House and Senate committees also prepare legislation.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee plans to discuss this legislation at an upcoming hearing on April 11. The panel has already held six hearings on the opioid crisis so far this Congress featuring representatives from agencies including the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as governors from states affected by the crisis.

“We’ve been listening to the experts for the last six months on how the federal government can help states and communities bring an end to the opioid crisis, and the bipartisan proposals in this draft reflect what we’ve learned,” HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander said.

“By working together, listening to researchers, officials, experts, and families facing the crisis, and pulling in the ideas of Senators from both sides of the aisle — we have been able to take an important step with this draft bill toward addressing the wide set of challenges caused by the opioid epidemic,” said Sen. Patty Murray, the panel’s ranking Democrat.

Watch: Trump Talks About Wall, Brother During Opioid Crisis Speech

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The draft bill would affect the NIH, the FDA, the CDC, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and the Health Resources and Services Administration, as well as provide support for families and workers affected by the opioid crisis.

Many of the items under consideration parallel efforts in the House, which is considering its own legislative package this spring.

The draft bill would grant the NIH additional flexibilities to approve new projects that would help to combat the crisis, including searching for a nonaddictive painkiller.

The bill would also give additional authorities to the FDA, such as the ability to require manufacturers to package drugs like opioids in a so-called blister pack to limit overprescribing for patients who may only need a smaller supply. In addition, the bill would require manufacturers to give patients a way to dispose of excess drugs as part of their packaging. It would boost coordination between the FDA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection in an effort to improve the agencies’ ability to seize synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.

It would include, through SAMHSA, upgrades to recovery-housing best practices, first-responder training and comprehensive opioid recovery centers. It would also include language to help prevent abuse in children and young adults.

The discussion draft has several provisions that are meant to expand the size of the addiction treatment workforce, particularly in areas where treatment options are lacking.

The draft would expand eligibility for federal student loan repayment to include more members of the health workforce who provide addiction treatment services. Currently, workers at stand-alone addiction treatment centers in areas that would otherwise be eligible for the loan repayment program don’t qualify. The bill would change that, and would further expand the program’s scope to provide more addiction treatment and mental health services in schools.

The bill would also allow the DEA to allow certain addiction facilities to prescribe medication-assisted treatment using telemedicine. Most of the effective prescription addiction drugs, like buprenorphine and methadone, are controlled substances themselves. Patients receiving the treatment for the first time currently need to physically meet with their doctor.

Parallel movement

The House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Finance Committee are also taking steps in the near future to address the crisis.

Alexander has said he hopes to mark up the draft legislation this spring, while House Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden has also publicly said he hopes the House will pass an anti-opioids package by Memorial Day.

The slate of over 30 bills and discussion drafts being discussed by Energy and Commerce as well as the aspects of the Senate HELP Committee draft package share similarities, including a focus on recovery and prevention, as well as improvements in data and technology.

Increasing interoperability of state prescription drug monitoring programs, which aim to ensure that patients do not abuse prescriptions, would be part of both chambers’ packages. Each chamber is also considering language, commonly known as Jessie’s Law, to help physicians find out more easily if a patient has a history of abuse.

The Senate Finance Committee is eyeing holding its own hearing next week, though proposals from members are still being discussed. According to a lobbyist, tentative plans for the hearing include a focus on drug monitoring programs, increasing information for prescribers and expanding access to health screenings.

Andrew Siddons contributed to this report.

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