The Senate easily passed a bipartisan bill aimed at combating opioid misuse and overdose deaths Thursday, but Democrats said the earlier defeat of an emergency funding amendment leaves the legislation essentially powerless.
Senators approved the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act with a vote of 94-1.
The bill creates grant programs for states to build education programs and develop evidence-based treatment plans. It also expands the availability of naloxone, which can reverse an opioid overdose, and strengthens prescription monitoring programs.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has said the bill would establish programs worth $725 million through 2021.
The only vote against the bill was from Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.). An identical bill is pending in the Republican-led House of Representatives. The White House has said (PDF) it supports the grant programs but believes the bill would not truly address the epidemic without funding attached. It did not threaten a veto, however.
Last week, an amendment by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) to include $600 million in emergency funding in the bill fell 12 votes short of the 60 needed for passage.
Democrats said Thursday that although they voted for the bill, it is essentially empty rhetoric without funding attached. Republicans have maintained that funding is available and should come through the regular appropriations process.
Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said medical professionals and law enforcement need more resources to fight the opioid abuse epidemic and have asked for them.
“Yeah, there's funding for these programs, but you have to take it away from other treatment and recovery programs,” he said in remarks on the floor before the vote. “It's robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) posted a tweet soon after the bill was passed that said Republicans are shortchanging police and medical professionals by “forcing them to fight this scourge with one arm tied behind their backs.”
An amendment that was included with the bill will allow Medicare to implement programs requiring some beneficiaries at risk for drug abuse to get all their prescriptions from a single prescriber and pharmacy.
Cynthia Reilly, director of the prescription drug abuse program at the Pew Charitable Trusts, wrote in a blog post Thursday that the programs are needed to cut back on “doctor shopping” by Medicare patients.
“(These) programs have the potential to save lives and lower healthcare costs, and as a result many health plans and Medicaid programs already use them,” she wrote.
Other amendments to the legislation will provide follow-up care to people who receive treatment for an opioid overdose and strengthen treatment programs for pregnant women and mothers.
The opioid crisis is also addressed in President Barack Obama's 2017 budget, which calls for $1.1 billion to help increase access to medication-assisted treatment. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also working on prescribing guidelines for opioid painkillers that suggest providers look for alternative treatments and prescribe small amounts of low doses when the medication is appropriate. The Food and Drug Administration has also said it will change its policies for reviewing new opioid painkillers.
More than 47,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2014 in cities and rural areas alike, a death rate that more than doubled since 2000. The CDC has said the drug problem has grown most significantly in the Northeast, Midwest and South. West Virginia, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Kentucky and Ohio had the highest death rates from drug overdoses in 2014.