How severe is the opioid crisis? Members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, put aside the usual partisan hair-pulling and dysfunction to address the problem in a comprehensive way. Both the House and Senate gave overwhelming approval in sending the legislation to President Trump last week. The measure falls short of what is needed, as many experts have noted, with 72,000 Americans dying of drug overdoses in 2017. Yet it moves the country in the right direction.
Among those lawmakers at the front are U.S. Sens. Rob Portman, a Cincinnati Republican, and Sherrod Brown, a Cleveland Democrat. For instance, Portman pushed a provision to block the shipment by mail of illegal drugs into the country. This aims, in particular, at opiates such as fentanyl, deadly in small quantities.
The Postal Service will collect electronic data about the sender and the contents. Private carriers such as FedEx already do so. If the information is not provided, the Postal Service, too, can halt or destroy a shipment.
Brown took the lead on a provision that ensures Medicaid will reimburse facilities that help infants who are born dependent on drugs. Among other things, it extends payment for treatment beyond age 1.
The legislation repeals an outdated rule that bars states from spending federal Medicaid money on residential addiction treatment at facilities with more than 16 beds. This change should make available more spots for those with low incomes suffering from drug addiction. The bill permits nurse practitioners and physician assistants to prescribe medication such as buprenorphine that helps addicts break their dependence. It routes funding to research on alternatives to opiates in treating pain.
Both Portman and Brown know how hard the opioid crisis has hit Ohio. The state Department of Health recently reported that overdose deaths climbed last year, to 4,854. Fentanyl-related deaths have soared, from fewer than 100 annually before 2014 to 1,115 in 2015, 2,357 in 2016 and 3,431 last year. If the state has done a better job containing pill mills and prescribed opiates, it still isn’t keeping pace with the problem, let alone getting ahead.
Which goes to what many experts stress: For all the positive aspects of the legislation, it isn’t enough.
That is especially the case for making available both adequate medication-assisted treatment and long-term residential care, during which a recovering addict can begin to build and sustain a better life. This combination is the best practice. Yet in roughly $8 billion during the next five years, Congress has not provided sufficient resources.