WASHINGTON — A U.S. Senate panel heard from health officials Tuesday about actions being made to address the opioid epidemic, and discussed ways lawmakers and agencies can work to combat drug addiction.
The Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies questioned three officials linked to the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as former Democratic Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, who served between 1995 and 2011.
Kennedy spoke as a member of President Donald Trump’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, which recommended in November the increase of drug courts and other prevention services. Kennedy used alcohol and OxyContin in the past, and has written about his history of addiction.
“I’ve suffered from an opioid use disorder, and I’ve also been with you all in the policy-making branch. I can tell you this is an issue whose only solution is a comprehensive approach, and by that I mean this is not just a couple of agency budgets that are going to be increased here and there,” he said.
“This is something that has to be done across all agencies that may not even be able to understand how and what impact they have in helping be able to provide the kind of comprehensive care that’s going to make it possible for people in this country who are trying to achieve sobriety and live in recovery to be able to do that effectively.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in October more than 64,000 people died from overdosing on drugs including heroin, fentanyl and opioid. West Virginia had the highest fatal drug overdose rate in the country in 2015 with 41.5 deaths per 100,000 people.
In his prepared remarks, Kennedy recommended Congress allocate at least $25 billion to address risky drug use in the United States.
“God bless the president for calling for a public health emergency, but that’s just rearranging chairs on the Titanic,” he said, adding the committee should recommend Trump declare an emergency under the Stafford Act.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said part of the solution in addressing opioid addiction is assuring resources are being properly distributed. Capito, as well as Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, are co-sponsors of the Targeted Opioid Funding Act, which would amend the current law to require the Department of Health and Human Services secretary to consider mortality rates when issuing grants.
“Let’s weight these grants to where the greatest needs are,” she said. “Everybody, yes, can get something, but not population size.”
SAMSHA awarded West Virginia a grant worth around $6 million in April for addressing the matter. The agency distributed $485 million to help states in their efforts.
Capito said states — such as West Virginia, Kentucky and Maine — that face the most problems in dealing with the opioid crisis have smaller populations.
“I think you can look for us to be very aggressive to be more encouraging to you, either regulatory or through legislation,” she told Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, SAMSHA assistant secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use.
“If we don’t stop this epidemic in West Virginia and New Hampshire, the numbers are going to go up proportionally in all of these states. We have an opportunity here.”
Manchin pressed the panel about what has fueled the opioid epidemic, asking why no one raised concerns about the shipment of opioids to West Virginia prior to a December 2016 investigation by the Charleston Gazette-Mail on the subject.
“Do you all believe that this has been basically from the pharmaceuticals — to the distributors to the (pharmacy benefit managers) — has this been a business model or a health-healing model?” he asked.
Kennedy said he could give Manchin an “easy yes” that the epidemic represented a business model, adding doctors are hesitant to recommend medication-assisted treatment to patients with addiction.
“This is a bad part of our American history,” he said.
Manchin said officials should consider Senate Bill 581, which passed the Senate in August. The bill, named “Jessie’s Law,” would require the Department of Health and Human Services to develop standards to allow medical facilities to have full knowledge of a patient’s history with opioids.
The bill is named after Jessie Grubb, a Charleston native who died in March 2016 after being prescribed oxycodone following surgery. She had been clean for six months prior to her death.