Senate Passes Bill Addressing Heroin, Opioid Crisis

Senate Passes Bill Addressing Heroin, Opioid Crisis
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The Senate passed a major piece of legislation Thursday aimed at combating a growing heroin and prescription drug epidemic by an overwhelmingly bipartisan margin of 94-1.

The bill marks a significant victory for several Republican senators, including Rob Portman of Ohio and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, who are facing difficult re-election battles this year in states that have been hit hard by the drug crisis.

The measure, sponsored by Portman, Ayotte, and Democratic Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, passed with little controversy, as it was widely supported by senators on both sides of the aisle and promoted extensively by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Only Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse voted against it.

The bill authorizes grants to states for addiction treatment, prevention and education initiatives aimed at lowering the number of drug abusers and overdose deaths. It also expands the availability of a drug that reverses the immediate effects of an overdose. A companion bill has been introduced in the House, though no action has been taken on it yet.

Abuse of heroin and prescription opioids – a synthetic version of narcotics derived from opium and often prescribed as painkillers – is a rising epidemic across the country. More than 47,000 overdose deaths occurred in the U.S. in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and overdose deaths now outnumber deaths from car accidents.

Senate Democrats, who unanimously supported the measure, last week pushed for an additional $600 million in funding for the drug prevention effort, but Republicans blocked that amendment. GOP senators argued that there was already more than $500 million appropriated in last year’s omnibus funding bill that would go to fighting the epidemic, and that more could be added during this year’s appropriations process; the White House has asked for $1.1 billion in new funding to address the problem.

Ayotte and Portman, along with GOP Sens. Mark Kirk of Illinois, Susan Collins of Maine and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, supported the $600 million amendment. Democrats chose not to block the legislation or delay its passage over the funding disagreement, but did make a renewed push for the additional funding Thursday on the Senate floor prior to the vote.

The bill marks a major victory for several Republican senators in tough re-election races this year, particularly Portman and Ayotte. In Ohio, nearly 2,500 people died from drug overdoses in 2014, up more than 1,000 from 2008, according to data from the Columbus Dispatch. In New Hampshire, a state of just 1.3 million, more than 300 people died last year from overdoses, and residents named the epidemic the top issue last year, ahead of the economy and national security.

Portman, who co-authored the bill, and Ayotte, an original co-sponsor, have each made the legislation one of their top priorities over the last year, pushing Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley to take up the bill earlier this year and educating their colleagues on it. Both touted the importance of passing the legislation Thursday and called on the House to take action.

The bill “is a significant step forward in the federal response to this crisis, and I urge my colleagues in the House to pass this bill right away so we can take action to save lives in New Hampshire and across the country,” Ayotte said in a statement.

Portman thanked Whitehouse, his main Democratic co-sponsor of the bill, as well as anti-drug and law enforcement groups that helped support the legislation. He said Thursday’s vote marked progress, “but our work is far from over.”

“Today’s strong bipartisan vote is a victory for American families who are struggling with the disease of addiction,” Portman said. “We know that the abuse of heroin and prescription drugs is tearing apart families and devastating our communities. This bill will help more Americans put their lives back together and achieve their God-given potential.”

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

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