In Pa., Widespread Drug Problem Colors Senate Race

In Pa., Widespread Drug Problem Colors Senate Race
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In three states with critically important Senate elections this year, drug abuse is central to voters’ concerns. In the second installment of this three-part series on the issue in key Senate races, RealClearPolitics examines the contest in Pennsylvania.

In one small Pennsylvania county in August, eight drug overdoses occurred in the span of just 70 minutes. The number increased to 16 overdoses in 24 hours and 25 over a two-day span, with three people dead. This was just a potent example of the drug abuse problem that has gripped the state in recent years, with the ninth most overdose deaths from 2011-2013, according to a study released last summer, and the third most in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Indeed, drug overdose deaths now outnumber deaths from car accidents in the state.

Part 1: Issue Looms Large in Ohio Senate Contest

“It’s a frightening and very, very widespread problem,” Republican Sen. Pat Toomey told RCP in an interview last week. “It’s really disastrous across the country. Pennsylvania, sadly, is a very badly affected state and it seems that almost everybody knows somebody who has a family member who has suffered from addiction.”

Toomey, who chairs a health care subcommittee, held a hearing in October at a hospital in Pittsburgh with fellow Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey to address solutions to the growing epidemic. The day prior to that hearing, Toomey penned an op-ed advocating a three-pronged approach to combating the issue: stopping illegal diversion of painkillers, reducing the use of opioids for pain treatment and helping those battling addiction. (Opioids are synthetic versions of narcotics derived from opium.)

For the first prong, Toomey introduced legislation that would allow Medicare to lock abusers of the system who partake in “doctor shopping” – going to multiple doctors and pharmacies to receive pain meds – into a single doctor and pharmacy so their use can be tracked.

As for reducing the use of opioids for long-term pain, Toomey said he is hesitant to push a legislative solution that would tie the hands of doctors, and instead advocates educating doctors about the widespread problems of opioid abuse and the way it often leads to heroin addiction. (Heroin, though illegal, is typically cheaper and easier to get than painkillers.)

Toomey said he wants to avoid drug abuse becoming a “polarizing issue,” and that there “doesn’t need to be a partisan aspect to this.” But his two potential Democratic challengers, former Rep. Joe Sestak (whom Toomey defeated in 2010) and Katie McGinty, the former chief of staff to Gov. Tom Wolf, both criticized the way the senator has approached the issue.

Sestak faulted Toomey for voting against spending bills that included funding for FDA trials for non-addictive pain medication and courts that deal specifically with drug offenders, as well as Veterans Affairs budgets that funded drug treatment efforts. Sestak and McGinty both criticized Toomey for his consistent opposition to the Affordable Care Act, which they say provides critical funding and measures to help prevent drug abuse. McGinty called repealing Medicaid expansion, which Toomey voted to do last month, “exactly the wrong way” to go about the issue. (The House passed the same legislation last week, but President Obama swiftly vetoed it.)

Sestak added: “There’s a different approach of saying something and doing what you say, whereas Sen. Toomey will say something and vote the exact opposite way.”

Toomey brushed aside those criticisms, saying that his votes were not about the specific elements in the spending bills, but overall opposition to funding the government through one large omnibus measure rather than individual appropriations bills.

“They’re politicians running for office so I expect them to make up these kinds of charges,” Toomey told RCP. “I have usually voted against these giant, thousand-page, trillion-dollar omnibus spending bills because they’re such a grossly irresponsible way to fund the government. They have literally many thousands of individual line items, and I know Congressman Sestak likes to pretend that I must oppose every individual line item because I voted against these grotesque omnibus bills. That’s just ridiculous.”

McGinty and Sestak both also highlighted their own past work combating drug abuse. Sestak, a former Navy admiral and Vietnam War-era veteran, said drug abuse was “rampant” during his time in the Navy, and that he was aware early in his life of the harm it causes. While in Congress and continuing today, Sestak said he visits veterans in prison every Veterans Day, and that most of them are there because of drug-related crimes. He touted both his work passing legislation for parity between mental and physical health coverage, which was ultimately included in the Affordable Care Act, and voting in favor of trials for the non-addictive pain medication.

“I look at this now and this is livelihoods and it’s devastating to many families and they just sometimes need treatment and prevention and monitoring, but you need resources to do it,” Sestak said.

McGinty advocated for approaching the drug crisis in three areas: prevention, treating addiction when it happens and providing tools for emergency situations. She said she helped push Gov. Wolf to expand Medicaid in the state, as well as to provide first responders with Narcan, the emergency overdose drug.

She also said she would create a team approach to lessen dependency on painkillers by having prescribing doctors work with a mental-health provider and addiction specialist to monitor progress. Like Sestak, she championed the mental health parity aspects of the Affordable Care Act and said a priority of hers in the Senate would be making sure insurance companies abide by those standards.

“This has got to be top of the agenda because for far too many of our sons [and] daughters, life is turning out to be brutish and altogether too short because of addiction issues,” McGinty said. “That’s something at least for this Senate candidate is heartfelt and is and will be a top priority."

The Democratic Senate primary takes place April 26.

Tuesday: Illinois candidates confront “hidden epidemic”

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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