Policy

Committees Tackle Politically Powerful Issue of Opioids Legislation

Senate HELP panel advanced bipartisan package Tuesday

Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, chairs the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee, which will consider over 60 bills to address the opioids crisis at a Wednesday markup. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House heads into a marathon opioid markup Wednesday, a day after the Senate health committee approved bipartisan legislation of its own addressing the crisis. Both chambers are eager to advance bills to combat the crisis under an aggressive timeline, with an eye toward demonstrating action before the midterms on an issue that affects voters representing most demographics and districts.

“Even though this epidemic is worse in some parts of the country than others, find me a congressional district where this isn’t an issue,” said Keith Humphreys, a drug policy expert at Stanford. “Absolutely, they do not want to go into an election and have their constituents mad at them.”

Humphreys told Roll Call that the various bills being introduced in Congress vary in ambition, singling out the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee-approved package as “sensible” due to its bipartisan approach but not a game changer.

The action continues Wednesday afternoon when the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee will consider over 60 bills, many of which are bipartisan. But unlike the bipartisan Senate health panel vote, which was unanimous, the House markup is likely to be more contentious.

Democrats have voiced concerns at previous hearings about the number and scope of the bills, and legislation without a Republican co-sponsor are likely to face an uphill climb. Chairman Greg Walden of Oregon aims for the House to pass an opioids package by Memorial Day.

These aren’t the only committees delving into the opioids debate. The House Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee will also hold a hearing Wednesday on stopping the flow of synthetic opioids in the international mail system.

Last week, the Senate Finance Committee hosted its first hearing on the crisis, focusing on improving Medicaid and Medicare. The week before, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, and the House Oversight Subcommittee on Health Care, Benefits and Administrative Rules held their own hearings.

The administration and Congress have focused on the opioid epidemic since President Donald Trump declared it a public health emergency last fall. The Department of Health and Human Services renewed the opioids public health emergency declaration, effective Tuesday.

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Among the most ambitious bills is legislation by Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee ranking Democrat Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland that would address the crisis similar to the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act. Humphreys singled out the legislation as among those most likely to have a direct impact on the epidemic.

Leana Wen, the health commissioner for the city of Baltimore, is also pushing for this proposal. “There are no silver bullets here,” Wen wrote in an op-ed with Evan Behrle, special adviser for opioid policy at the Baltimore City Health Department. “But this is, finally, a proposal that stands a chance of making a difference,” referring to the Warren-Cummings bill.

The bill still lacks a Republican co-sponsor.

Senate action

The Senate HELP panel on Tuesday advanced a bipartisan opioids package that the chairman predicted may get a floor vote within the next few months.

The bill, which includes over 40 proposals related to ways to combat the opioid epidemic, was written after seven committee hearings on the crisis with input from various agencies and state officials.

“It would be my hope that we could ask the majority leader and Sen. [Charles E.] Schumer to ask for a time agreement sometime this summer to take our bill with the unanimous support of this committee,” HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander said. The Tennessee Republican added that he hopes to merge this bill with ideas from other panels discussing the issue such as the Senate Finance or Judiciary committees and to then work with the House before clearing a final bill.

The current legislation included a variety of measures that would, among other things, support opioid disposal, encourage confidential sharing of patient information to prevent future overdoses, support prescription drug monitoring programs, and urge coordination between the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection to prevent the importing of illegal drugs like fentanyl.

Senate leaders say they will clear legislation this year.

“This epidemic requires our continued attention. On behalf of those in Kentucky and all over the country who are struggling, we’re determined to keep doing our part,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement Tuesday.

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