WASHINGTON – Since the first American contracted Covid-19 in January 2020, the pandemic has been inescapable on the forefront of the country’s collective mind – and not without good reason. Last month, the coronavirus, which has claimed over 700,000 American lives, officially became the deadliest disease event in the nation’s history.
But creeping confidently in the background, lost in the vast sea of news coverage brought on by the first global pandemic in over a century, another disease managed to weave its way into the fabric of daily life and kill more Americans in a single year than ever before: drug addiction and the opioid epidemic.
To combat the pressing issue, Sens. Jon Ossoff, D–Ga., and Chuck Grassley, R–Iowa, worked across the aisle to introduce the Rural Opioid Abuse Prevention Act on September 22.
“The pandemic seems to have both drawn attention away from and worsened the opioid epidemic,” Grassley told Medill News Service. “Our legislation will serve as an important component in a broader effort to fight opioid overdoses and addiction.”
The bipartisan effort is designed to help fight the epidemic by providing a surge of federal dollars “to reduce opioid overdose deaths in high-risk rural communities while raising awareness about local opioid use and substance use disorder,” according to a press release announcing the legislation.
The bill also has bipartisan support in the other chamber, where Reps. Conor Lamb, D–Penn., and Randy Feenstra, R–Iowa, introduced companion legislation in April.
For Ossoff, fighting the opioid epidemic in Georgia and across the country is personal.
“Like so many Georgians, I’ve lost friends to the opioid epidemic,” Ossoff said in a statement. “My bipartisan bill with Senator Grassley will fund efforts in rural communities to prevent and treat addiction and to save lives.”
From big cities to small rural towns, the opioid epidemic in America is worse than it’s ever been. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 93,000 people died of drug overdoses in the United States in 2020, the highest number of drug-related deaths ever recorded in a year.
Estimated overdose deaths from opioids increased from 50,963 in 2019 to 69,710 in 2020, in large part because of an unmitigated influx of fentanyl, a highly potent and deadly synthetic opioid commonly found in counterfeit pills or cut and mixed with other drugs.
It’s resulted in an enormous loss of life that is not slowing down in 2021. Last week, the Drug Enforcement Administration released a public safety alert warning about “the alarming increase in the lethality and availability of fake prescription pills containing fentanyl.”
According to the alert, DEA agents seized more than 9.5 million counterfeit pills so far this year, and of those found to be containing fentanyl, roughly 40% contained a lethal dose.
Michele Gilbert is a senior policy analyst on the health team at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. BPC’s opioid crisis task force was assembled in April to produce a report for the Biden administration assessing the effectiveness of federal funding for the epidemic. Gilbert says if passed, the measure is an effective piece of legislation that will address some of the crisis’ most pressing needs.
“[This bill] is really geared towards addressing the opioid epidemic and especially communities of need that are underserved,” Gilbert said. “As of now, this is largely rural areas.”
According to Gilbert, the bill could make its way to the Senate floor for a vote as early as next week, in part because it has broad bipartisan support.
“In order for any bill to move quickly through the United States Senate, it needs to be bipartisan,” Grassley said. “I’m happy to partner with Senator Ossoff or any colleague on good policy.”