The House-approved bills are expected to be combined into a single package that will be sent to the Senate.
“This is not going to fix the problem,” said Mark Covall, president and CEO of the National Association for Behavioral Healthcare.
Everybody wants their name on a bill addressing the opioid crisis – especially Republicans facing tough reelection battles.
That’s why House leadership will bring more than 70 such bills to the floor by the end of the month, many sponsored by the most vulnerable members of the GOP conference. The schedule allows lawmakers to show they’re trying to combat a public health emergency that claims 115 lives per day and is a top concern of midterm voters. But it’s a cumbersome, piecemeal approach involving hours of votes on narrow bills that Democrats complain don’t go far enough and are being rushed through the legislative mill.
“We know we’ll have to pull them together at some point, but they put a lot of work into them,” said House Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.), whose panel originated most of the measures. “Everybody has their own idea and their own cause and thing they’re working on.”
This week alone, the House passed more than 30 bills sponsored by members from both parties, mostly by voice vote with no dissent. Democrats aren’t shy about touting their involvement, despite their misgivings about the overall process: Energy and Commerce ranking member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) took credit for one bill that would expand the FDA’s power to stop illegally made opioids from arriving through international mails.
But it’s House Republicans who most feel the need to promote their legislative accomplishments. Eleven of the 17 GOP incumbents the nonpartisan Cook Political Report classifies as in toss-up races are primary sponsors of legislation that is expected to be considered by the House this week or next.
For good reason. The drug abuse epidemic is sure to again be a top issue with voters heading into the midterms. A CBS News poll from May found 71 percent of voters described it as a “very serious” issue facing the country, including 78 percent of Republicans, 72 percent of Democrats and 67 percent of independents. Nearly 80 percent of all voters said the federal government should do more to address the crisis.
Bringing dozens of bills to the floor, instead of one comprehensive measure, makes it easier for members to show they’re engaged, said former Republican Rep. Mary Bono, who now advocates for people recovering from addiction and is co-founder of the Collaborative for Effective Prescription Opioid Policies. “It’s hard to go out on the campaign and say I negotiated this provision into the bill," she said. "Leadership recognizes they should give credit where credit is due.”
Responding to the crisis was a pillar of President Donald Trump’s campaign that helped capture hard-hit states like West Virginia, where he received nearly 70 percent of the vote. But critics say all the talk hasn’t translated into meaningful results, and they blame Republicans for simultaneously undercutting critical safety net programs like Medicaid.
“Republicans aren’t addressing the problem in a meaningful way,” said Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), who is running for governor in his state. “If Republicans were serious about dealing with opioids, they would drop their assault on Medicaid,” he said, adding that the GOP’s efforts to repeal Obamacare would be disastrous for people with substance abuse issues.
The American Action Network, a GOP outside group, has launched a six-figure ad buy in 28 districts with competitive races, touting Republican candidates’ efforts to work across party lines to address the crisis.
“Members of Congress need to go in front of their constituents and explain to them what they’ve done to make their community a better place," said Corry Bliss, executive director of the American Action Network and Congressional Leadership Fund.
Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.) said voting on narrow bills one-by-one can prevent the legislation from getting bogged down by political roadblocks.
“There are a lot of good ideas out there,” he said. “And sometimes when you put them all together, then it kind of causes problems.”
Republican supporters of the bills say the extended time on the floor reflects how seriously the House takes the opioid issue.
Most of the bills sponsored by vulnerable lawmakers are not controversial, in part because they don’t designate new spending. Rep. Barbara Comstock of Virginia, who polls show trailing a Democratic challenger in her suburban swing district outside Washington, D.C., sponsored one measure that passed and would require HHS to issue guidance on obtaining better clinical data on non-opioid alternatives.
Likewise, Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida, who polls also show is trailing in one of the most competitive races in the country, has a bill that would require HHS to develop a toolkit for hospitals to help reduce opioid misuse.
Other bills focus on propping up the behavioral health workforce, expanding access to treatment and curbing the flow of illicit substances.
The House-approved bills are expected to be combined into a single package that will be sent to the Senate. There, lawmakers plan to bring their own anti-opioid legislation to the floor next month. The HELP and Finance committees have combined their opioid-related bills into one legislative package each. It’s unclear whether amendments will be allowed on the Senate floor – a process lawmakers would like, but that could up take time.
Advocates are divided on how much the work will reduce overdose deaths and prevent more people from becoming addicted.
“It’s a very comprehensive response,” said Jessica Nickel, founder and CEO of the Addiction Policy Forum. "It addresses non-opioid alternatives, important prevention programs and child welfare components. It’s a really important step.”
But some say that without guaranteed, long-term funding, the legislation won’t make much of a difference.
“This is not going to fix the problem,” said Mark Covall, president and CEO of the National Association for Behavioral Healthcare. “We need to find a sustainable solution. We shouldn’t be looking at it from a grant-based system. This has been a long-term problem that is not going to go away.”
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