Curbing the nation's heroin epidemic, which has emerged as a major election-year concern among voters, will require educating physicians about their prescribing patterns, and providing more funding for behavioral-health professionals and medication-assisted treatments, lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee were told Wednesday.
Senators from both sides of the aisle expressed support for policy prescriptions offered by three panels of expert witnesses, including public-health officials and law-enforcement officers. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) urged the committee to take action on the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which was first introduced in 2014.
Senators from both parties said they were encouraged by their colleagues' statements, and would push for the bill to move toward a vote. Presidential candidates from both parties have also called for action on the opioid-abuse epidemic.
The pending legislation would provide $80 million for addiction prevention and treatment, expand community-based education and recovery efforts, strengthen prescription-drug monitoring programs, and offer treatment to addicts who are incarcerated. The bill has been sent to committees in both chambers this session.
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin said his state needs federal funding to implement evidence-based treatment programs and increase its healthcare provider workforce. “We're scraping together pennies to try and keep our treatment centers standing on their own,” he said.
Several witnesses said medical practice is part of the problem. Physicians need more training in medical school and continuing-education classes on pain management and opioid prescribing, according to Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Veterinarians receive substantially more training on treating pain than medical doctors, she said.
Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said patient satisfaction surveys, which can affect hospital evaluations, may incentivize doctors to prescribe more pain medication than necessary.
Medication-assisted treatment is part of the solution, several witnesses said. Health professionals recommended providing naloxone, which can reverse an opioid overdose, to more first responders. Other said doctors should be encouraged to prescribe buprenorphine, which helps treat addiction, more frequently.
Linda Hurley, chief operating officer at CODAC Behavioral Healthcare, said such medications can help ease the pain of withdrawal without providing the euphoria associated with dependence. “This, in turn, provides the individual the opportunity to heal; physically, emotionally and spiritually,” she said.
Lawmakers spoke frequently about visiting victims of drug abuse in their states, and all agreed that dealing with the epidemic is a priority.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) emphasized that the availability, potency and low price of heroin was driving the epidemic. He said there should be a greater focus on border security and efforts to stop international trafficking.
Ranking Judiciary Committee Member Patrick Leahy of Vermont countered that the focus needs to be on those who've become addicted to heroin. "We've got to stop the demand,” he said. “Closing borders won't do it.”