Thursday a Capitol Hill briefing featuring Dr. Phil McGraw became more like a Capitol Hill hearing as he discussed the heroin/opioid use epidemic and its impact on the child welfare.

The briefing sponsored by the House Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth, co-chaired by Congressperson Karen Bass (D-CA) and Congressman Tom Marino (R-PA), was open to all members of the House of Representatives.  It was cosponsored by several other Senate and House caucuses and as a result nearly two dozen House members attended.  Dr. McGraw, host of the Dr Phil Show, presented along with his mentor and colleague Dr. Frank Lawless, providing an overview of the challenge and the potential solutions.

To open the event, Congressperson Bass talked forcefully about the need to better address this most recent drug epidemic. She went on to explain that this time around the country needed to deal with the issue in a much different way from the 1980s crack-cocaine crisis.  She said “what we did first was punish women and punished them in a way that resulted in unprecedented levels of removals of children from their families.” Bass said this current opioid epidemic was an opportunity to respond more effectively. She said this is not an incarceration problem it is a health problem and we need to deal with it in that way.

The many members of Congress attending included (not in any order or limited to) Congressman Billy Long (R-MO), Congressman David Cicilline (D-RI), Congressman Tom Marino (R-PA), Congressman Trent Franks (R-AZ), Congresswoman Kay Granger (R-TX), Congressman Brad Sherman (D-CA), Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA), Congresswoman Rosa Delauro (D-CT), Congressman Alan Lowenthal (D-CA),Congresswoman Debbie Dingle, Congresswoman Janice Hahn (D-CA), Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX), Congressman Lloyd Doggett (D-TX), Congressman Tony Cardenas (D-CA), Congressman Phil Roe (R-TN), Congresswoman Bonnie Watson-Coleman (D-NJ),  Congressman Dr. Raul Ruiz (D-CA), and Congressman Ben Lujan (D-NM).

Dr. McGraw said that families were under attack and that one of the ways they were under attack was from drugs. He then went on to talk about the impact of opioids on the brain and the difficulty it creates for a person to quit.  He described the drug’s impact on endorphins in the brain and its stimulus effect and how it creates a pleasure sensation that is 1400 times the most pleasurable feelings an adult would experience under normal pleasure experiences.  McGraw also tied together how we treat parents with its impact on the family and that if you incarcerate the parent you are breaking up the family and removing the child.

During the question and answer period he was very direct in talking about the cost of effective treatment.  He ridiculed a one size fits all approach and 28-day treatment programs.  He said that 28 day programs were created not to address the treatment but because it is what the insurance industry is willing to pay for.  A line that drew applause from some members of Congress.   In talking about a private sector treatment plan that was effective he said that it could run from $50-$100,000.  He highlighted that if you made that investment you would address the problem and not break up those families.

He also talked about the need for flexible funding and referred to the families first draft Senate legislation as well as the recent safe care-CAPTA legislation. He said what was needed were services that could keep families together including family-based drug treatment that helped and treated the parent while also keeping the children together with the parent.

Congressman Lloyd Doggett in his comments said that the “the family first legislation that you mentioned is not actually legislation but a draft of a more significant bill…” sponsored by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR). Doggett went on to say that the draft was having difficulty because there was a lack of funding aside from shifting around some resources from other child welfare services. Other significant comments came from Congressman Cardenas who said that “this is not a new problem but a problem that has now spread to the suburbs.” He went on to criticize past approaches that we’ve used to put someone in a jail cell without the treatment which he said perpetuates the problem.