The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing in Washington yesterday titled “Attacking America’s Epidemic of Heroin and Prescription Drug Abuse.” It came as legislators consider the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. Several of the witnesses that appeared at the hearing were from the Northeast, including New Hampshire’s senators and Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin.
The CARA - Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act - notes that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that drug overdoses now surpass traffic accidents as a cause of deaths in the United States. In 2011, about 110 people in the United States died from drug overdoses every day.
In January 2014, Vermont Governor Democrat Peter Shumlin focused his entire state of the state address on the need to deal with the addiction crisis. Appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday, he outlined how he learned about the crisis and how the federal government must help states. “I learned that we were doing almost everything wrong. We moved to what we call a Rapid Intervention System. It’s working. We’ve expanded treatment like mad. Our problem is we literally are finding longer and longer waiting lines because there’s more and more demand. We need financial help. The states cannot do this alone.”
Governor Shumlin joined other panelists asking Congress to eliminate a regulation that is restricting treatment opportunities. “This is a federal change that I beg you to make. Why is it that physician assistants and nurse practitioners can prescribe Oxycontin and other drugs that lead to heroin addiction but they can’t prescribe the treatment drugs that would allow someone to get off this stuff and back to normal life?”
The Judiciary Committee is reviewing CARA. It would expand opioid abuse and prevention and education efforts; expand the availability of Narcan to first responders and law enforcement; expand drug take-back efforts; strengthen prescription drug monitoring programs and launch treatment intervention programs.
CARA co-author, Republican New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, called the addiction epidemic the most urgent public health and safety crisis facing her state. “In New Hampshire in 2014 we had 320 drug overdose deaths. That was a 60 percent increase from the year before. Solving this crisis requires a holistic approach and the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act is critical.”
CARA co-sponsor, Democratic New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen, has introduced two bills to address funding issues surrounding the addiction crisis. “I believe what we have now is a pandemic. It’s affecting young and old, urban and rural, rich and poor, white and minorities and it’s spreading to every state in this country. Public health and law enforcement agencies at all levels lack the resources to mount an effective response to the heroin and opioid epidemic. Nationwide in 2013 nearly 9 out of 10 people who needed drug treatment did not receive it. This is unacceptable. We need to mobilize a national response.”
Judiciary Committee members and panelists discussed the evolution of the addiction crisis. Vermont Governor Shumlin told committee members that the FDA, physicians and drug companies must be held accountable for their roles in contributing to the crisis. “We’ve always had this problem of drug dealers sending illegal drugs to America. So then what did change? We changed our attitudes and our practices in America about how we deal with pain. In 2010 we prescribed enough Oxycontin in this country to keep every adult in America high for a month. We simply pass out painkillers like candy in America and we’re unwilling to have that conversation.”
Senate Judiciary Committee hearing archive: www.judiciary.senate.gov/meetings/attacking-americas-epidemic-of-heroin-and-prescription-drug-abuse