WASHINGTON — The budget deal being voted on Thursday includes a sharp increase from $1.4 to $6 billion to fight the opioid crisis, and the Senate health committee announced the same day that it will offer a bill to further address the epidemic by the end of March.
Health committee chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said he and the top Democrat on the committee, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, plan to have hearings on their bill quickly, although they did not disclose the details of the legislation. They expect the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions to have a final version of the bill ready by the end of March.
Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., said the bipartisan funding agreement that the Senate reached Wednesday is an “important next step in strengthening our response to this epidemic.”
The agreement designates $6 billion in funding to fight the opioid epidemic, a sharp increase from the $1.4 billion designated to the cause in the 2017 and 2018 fiscal years. The deal also provides health care funding boosts, including $2 billion toward the National Institutes of Health
“These new dollars need to be prioritized for states like my own New Hampshire, which has been terribly and disproportionately hit by this crisis,” Hassan said. “I am going to continue to work with my colleagues to ensure that that happens.”
However, Hassan said, the $6 billion is not enough to “truly address” the crisis.
“We will ultimately need far more funding,” she said.
Becky Savage, a nurse and mother from Indiana, told the committee that she founded the 525 Foundation to educate teens about opioid abuse after two of her sons died of accidental alcohol and opioid overdoses.
“This foundation has allowed us to reach thousands of high school students, parents and educators,” she said. “Their story makes an impact,. Kids listen.”
However, Savage said, her foundation and others like it cannot reach their full potential without complementary government funding and programs.
Dr. Stephen Patrick, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said the number of infants diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome, a withdrawal condition that occurs in infants whose mothers used opioids, significantly increased from 2000 to 2014. By 2014, he said, one infant was born every 15 minutes with the syndrome.
Additionally, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the number of infants born in withdrawal from opioids has tripled from 1999 to 2013.
In the last two years, Congress passed the 2015 Protecting Our Infants Act, the 2016 21st Century Cures Act and the 2016 Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. All of these bills aim to ensure that individuals receive resources and care to combat opioid addiction and abuse.
“These important pieces of legislation may benefit from additional action, funding and implementation efforts,” Patrick said.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., proposed restoring Social Security survivor benefits for young people whose parent or parents died from opioid addiction.
“The least we could do is restore benefits up to age 22 for full-time students,” she said. “This crisis isn’t just about the lives that are lost, it is also about the struggle of those who have to cope.”
Alexander suggested increased funding for NIH to enable the organization to conduct research with more flexibility to address the crisis.
“It is important for the committee to hear how states are helping ensure newborns and children impacted by drug abuse are being cared for, and if they need changes to federal law or regulations to help improve that care,” he said.