House Passes Bipartisan Bills Addressing Opioid Crisis

Two Sponsored By Rep. MacArthur
Jun 27, 2018

It might seem as if Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on anything in this deeply divided United States.

Tax cuts. Immigration. Environmental policies. The list could go on and on.

But Republicans and Democrats actually do agree on one thing, that the country is suffering through a deadly opioid crisis. And even in an age of Congressional deadlock, they can get together in a bipartisan manner to fight that crisis.

The House of Representatives’ effort on the opioid front over the past couple of weeks has gone largely unnoticed, what with the situation at the Mexican border dominating television news and newspaper headlines. But the House has actually gotten its act together when it comes to fighting the opioid scourge. On Friday it voted 396 to 14 to send more than 50 bills to the Senate, almost all of which had wide bipartisan support.

The bills were wrapped into a single package, H.R. 6, named the SUPPPORT for Patients and Communities Act.

A few of the bills seemed like no-brainers. One, the Safe Disposal of Unused Medication Act, “will help reduce the number of unused controlled substances at risk of diversion or misuse by allowing hospice employees to safely dispose of these mediations onsite after the death of a patient.” Another is the Poison Center Network Enhancement Act of 2018, which will “reauthorize the national network of poison control centers, which offer free, confidential and expert medical advice 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Often times these programs serve as the primary resource for poisoning information and help reduce emergency room visits through in-home treatment.”

Many of the underlying bills are of the “let’s have a study” or “let’s issue a report” variety. The ACE Research Act, for example, “will provide the National Institutes of Health with new, flexible authorities to conduct innovative research and spur urgently needed research on new, non-addictive pain medications.” Then there’s the Synthetic Drug Awareness Act of 2018 that “will require the U.S. Surgeon General to submit a comprehensive report to Congress on the public health effects of the rise in synthetic drug use among youth aged 12 to 18 in order to further educate parents and the medical community on the health effects of synthetics.” Or the Alternatives to Opioids Act, to “establish a demonstration to test alternative pain management protocols to limit the use of opioids in hospital emergency departments.”

Such bills are harmless enough but perhaps aren’t urgent enough in nature in a country where more than 42,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2016.

Several bills, though, attempt to address that urgency.

The Stop the Importation and Trafficking of Synthetic Analogues Act of 2017 will update the Controlled Substances Act to address the problem of drug chemists developing analogs that are just slightly different from a currently scheduled drug, such as fentanyl, in order to skirt the law. The bill will give the U.S. attorney general greater authority to quickly identify and temporarily schedule a new drug when it is virtually identical to a currently scheduled drug. The old process could take three years. Now it will be reduced to a matter of months.

The IMD (Institutions for Mental Diseases) Care Act would fix an obscure rule that has been around for 53 years. Medicaid covers residential (in-house) addiction treatment up to 30 days a year for adults between ages 21 and 64. But it limits payment only to facilities with 16 or fewer beds. The IMD Care Act would allow Medicaid to reimburse larger in-house programs. That would significantly increase the number of treatment beds available to Medicaid patients, who make up a large portion of opioid addicts. A 2014 article in the New York Times reported that only about 10 percent of the 18,155 beds at residential treatment centers in California were in centers with 16 or fewer beds. Meanwhile, 72 percent of Ohio’s 2,538 addiction treatment beds in 2014 were in programs with more than 16 beds.

The Preventing Overdoses While in Emergency Rooms (POWER) Act will “provide resources for hospitals to develop protocols on discharging patients who have presented with an opioid overdose. These protocols would address the provision of naloxone (Narcan) upon discharge, connection with peer-support specialists, and referral to treatment and other services that best fit the patients’ needs.

The Substance Use Disorder Workforce Loan Repayment Act of 2018 could help solve a major problem in rural parts of the country. It “will create a loan repayment program for SUD (substance use disorder) treatment providers. Specifically, the bill will offer student loan repayment of up to $250,000 for participants who agree to work as a SUD treatment professional in areas most in need of their services. The program will be available to a wide range of direct care providers, including physicians, registered nurses, social workers and other behavioral health professionals.

Two of the underlying bills that were included in the package approved by the House were sponsored by Congressman Tom MacArthur, whose 3rd New Jersey District includes the western half of Stafford Township and all of Barnegat Township. The SENIOR Communities Protection Act gives Medicare a new tool to crack down on crooks who fraudulently use Medicare to flood communities with narcotics. Seniors have had their Medicare numbers stolen and used to fraudulently bill Medicare for opioids. In 2017 the Department of Justice announced the biggest healthcare fraud bust in history when 412 defendants were charged with using stolen Medicare numbers to bill the government for $1.3 billion in fraudulent charges, including for prescription opioids that were then distributed. The resulting pill dumping resulted in millions of painkillers flooding small towns through just a few pharmacies.

MacArthur’s bill will allow Medicare Part D to suspend payments to a pharmacy that is under investigation for fraud or abuse.

“If a criminal is misusing a pharmacy to fraudulently bill Medicare and distribute drugs, we must stop them in their tracks by cutting off funds,” said MacArthur.

MacArthur also sponsored a bipartisan bill called the STOP (Surveillance and Testing of Opioids to Prevent) Fentanyl Deaths Act. It will create grant funding to assist states and municipalities in identifying fentanyl in both fatal and nonfatal drug overdoses. It would also create a pilot program allowing states to develop unique “point of use” (instant) drug testing programs. The idea of the bill is to allow states and municipalities to quickly discover when fentanyl is flooding an area.

MacArthur is the Republican co-chair of the Bipartisan Heroin Task Force. Of the 58 bills approved in the House package, two were MacArthur’s, five more were top Task Force priorities and 30 were authored by a member of the Task Force.

“As co-chair of the Bipartisan Heroin Task Force, I have been focused on working with my colleagues to improve prevention, treatment, and enforcement efforts,” said MacArthur after the package sailed through the House. “I am encouraged that so many of our task force members had legislation included in the final package that passed the House. It is amazing how much we can accomplish when we put politics aside and work together on the issues facing our nation. I am hopeful that the Senate will act on this legislation, which will save lives.”

— Rick Mellerup

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