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More Chinese fentanyl may stay out of the US under a new bipartisan bill

Another bipartisan proposal would help physicians learn more about a patient’s substance abuse history.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., arrives in the Capitol for the weekly Senate luncheons on Tuesday, March 5, 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., arrives in the Capitol for the weekly Senate luncheons on Tuesday, March 5, 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Calls to address the opioid crisis resumed Thursday as lawmakers released a bill that aims to curb the flow of illegal opioids into the United States and another to help physicians learn more about a patient’s substance abuse history.

The separate actions by a bipartisan group of senators and another of House members are drawing fresh attention to the overdose crisis, which is a concern for both parties even though Congress cleared an opioids law just last year. One of the bills, a Senate measure, stands a good chance of becoming law, said co-sponsor Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer.

The new measure offered by a bipartisan group led by the New York Democrat and Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton would authorize the Trump administration to place sanctions on China to pressure the country into cracking down on exports of fentanyl — a potent synthetic opioid that is predominantly manufactured in China.

Earlier this week, China placed fentanyl on its list of controlled substances.

“We were all pleased by the news. The administration deserves credit for their efforts but China still has to implement and enforce their law,” Schumer said. “China hasn’t announced how they are going to enforce it. In the past, they said they’d enforce laws and they never did.”

Schumer said he is optimistic about congressional action. He said Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Chairman Mike Crapo and ranking member Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown plan to mark it up.

“I have actually spoken to the president on this issue,” Schumer said. “We think on this issue there’s a very good chance this passes the Senate, passes the House, and gets signed into law.”

The bill would authorize an additional $600 million for intelligence and law enforcement officials to identify illicit fentanyl producers and traffickers and their financial networks. It would direct the president to make public the list of the producers and use sanction tools against them. This could include denying Chinese pharmaceutical companies access to U.S. markets, freezing their assets, or denying visas.

The bill also calls for a diplomatic effort for an international opioid control regime and would establish a commission to recommend additional policy actions to curb the foreign supply of fentanyl.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that over 70,000 individuals died in 2017 from drug overdoses.

Substance abuse privacy bill

In the House, another bipartisan group is pushing for action on a bill that would change how patient information is shared for individuals with a substance use disorder, but the measure faces steeper odds than the Senate bill.

Current law sets barriers that prevent health professionals from disclosing information about a patient’s substance use history in the same way as other medical records. The bill’s sponsors, Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer and Oklahoma Republican Markwayne Mullin argue that medical providers should know a patient’s full history.

The House passed a similar bill last year, but it was not included in the final opioid law and was not considered by the Senate.

“This is one of the most significant policies we can address to continue our efforts to combat the opioid crisis,” said Energy and Commerce ranking member Greg Walden of Oregon, who led last year’s effort on the bill. “I look forward to swift passage of this bill so doctors can safely and effectively treat patients with substance use disorder while ensuring the necessary privacy protections remain in place.”

But the measure faces a more difficult path this year, with Frank Pallone Jr., at the helm of Energy and Commerce this year. Pallone was one of the measure’s biggest skeptics.

The New Jersey Democrat said last year that allowing health care professionals to share treatment information without explicit permission from a patient may make some individuals less likely to seek treatment altogether out of fear they may be stigmatized.

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