As the opioid epidemic continues to scourge communities across America at a record rate, Congress and the Trump Administration have begun stepping up efforts to stem the surge in deaths from drug overdose.
President Donald Trump made combatting the drug epidemic a signature campaign issue in 2016, suggesting he would help establish treatment programs and that his proposed border wall would slow the influx of drugs coming in from across the Mexican border.
Despite these campaign promises, however, it took Trump nearly a full year to declare the opioid crisis a public health emergency, which he did at the end of October 2017. Trump did not declare it a “national emergency,” as he said he would on multiple occasions. Had he done that, it would have given states access to funding from the federal Disaster Relief Fund.
But with voters clamoring for more action throughout the country, the executive and legislative branches took major steps over the past seven days to address a medical crisis that claimed more than 50,000 American lives in 2016.
On Tuesday, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Justice Department support for hundreds of lawsuits brought by cities and medical institutions against opioid manufacturers and distributors seeking reimbursement for the cost of providing medical care and safety measures.
“We will seek to hold accountable those whose illegality has cost us billions of taxpayer dollars,” Sessions said in a statement.
The Justice Department also announced the creation of a new task force to work with the Department of Health and Human Services to examine legislative and regulatory options to strengthen existing laws.
“We will use criminal penalties; we will use civil penalties,” said Sessions at a news conference. “We will use whatever laws and tools we have to hold people accountable if they break our laws.”
On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, a bipartisan group of senators led by Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., introduced a bill to reauthorize 2016 anti-drug legislation approved in the twilight of the Obama Administration.
That law, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery ACT (CARA), changed practices used by federal agencies such as HHS and the Food and Drug Administration for treating opioid addiction and providing more funding to mitigate addiction.
“Passage of CARA was a historic moment, the first time in decades that Congress passed comprehensive addiction legislation, and the first time Congress has ever supported long-term addiction recovery,” said Portman in a statement. “Now we have the opportunity to build on this effort, increasing funding levels for programs we know work and implementing additional policy reforms that will make a real difference in combatting this epidemic. “
One of the main components of the expanded proposed legislation is to institute a three-day supply limit on new opioid prescriptions. Proponents say it would minimize the chances of a patient becoming addicted. Opponents say the limit is a nuisance and would make it difficult for residents of rural areas to obtain sufficient care to treat pain.
A recently published Center for Disease Control (CDC) study estimated that approximately 64,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2016, the highest number ever recorded.
The CDC study found that 19.8 Americans per 100,000 citizens died of drug overdoses in 2016, a 21 percent increase over the 2015 rate of 16.3.
While the federal government does not track death rates for all drugs, it does collect death information for the most popular drugs. The CDC estimates that of the more than 64,000 drug overdoses in 2016, over 50,000 were attributable to opioids.
During an appearance before the National Governors Association on Saturday, HHS Secretary Alex Azar announced plans for the FDA to allow pharmaceutical companies to begin selling drugs that are believed to help ween people off addictive medicines. The practice, known as “medication-assisted treatment” or MAT, allows patients to consume small quantities of medicine coupled with counseling and behavioral therapies.
“For many people struggling with addiction, failing to offer MAT is like trying to treat an infection without antibiotics,” Azar said.