Shaquita Ogletree
On Thursday, November 30, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee held a hearing to discuss the opioid crisis and how states, communities, and providers were responding to the epidemic.

Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) indicated that he hoped the Committee would take further action next year. Most of Committee members made an appearance despite the ongoing debate over the tax bill on the Senate floor. In opening remarks Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) said that “opioid abuse is different from any other social determinants…and wealthy and poor states are faced with complex challenges. One thing is for sure: the opioid abuse epidemic affects many families.”

Many of the witnesses and some Senators provided testimony of how a loved one died of an overdose and the impact on their family or how their doctor has prescribed prescription medication after an injury or surgery for pain management. What research and data have shown is that from infancy to adulthood, the opioid crisis affects pregnant mothers, newborns, children, families, and communities.

Last year Congress passed the 21st Century Cures Act to fund treatment and prevention programs across the nation. Rebecca BossRhode Island, discussed that state’s holistic approaches where they implemented an intervention program using Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT), that is evidenced-based, and research driven. Rhode Island also utilizes peer coaches for outreach and treatment for clients with addictions. In Wisconsin, the state is using funding to develop the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMPs) as a measure to combat prescription drug abuse. Andreas Magermans from Wisconsin’s Prescription Drug Monitoring program spoke about the coordination of services between law enforcement and health care professionals utilizing this model. Secretary John Tilley, Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet stated that collaborating with mental health treatment facilities for outpatient services is helpful; however, in Kentucky, there are not enough treatment providers or ones that have evidence-based programs. “The PDMP provides valuable information about controlled substance prescriptions that are dispensed in the state, it aids healthcare professionals in their prescribing and dispensing decisions.”

Dr. Omar Abubaker from Virginia, shared how his youngest son, Adam, overdosed on heroin and benzodiazepines at the age of 21, attributing it to pain medication prescribed when his son was 17 years old. Dr. Abubaker remarked that “the opioid addiction is an organic brain disease” and Senator Isakson (R-GA) thanked Dr. Abubaker for stating that as a fact. Isakson when on to talk about the loss of his grandson and how he thinks it is critical to have more treatment.

Some of the challenges mentioned for individuals battling addiction were seeking treatment and facing stigmatization, access to treatment, and affordability. The elephant in the room apparently is the possibility of millions of Americans losing health care coverage if Congress repeals the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which Sen. Bennet (D-CO) asked Secretary Tilley what the implication would be if ACA is repealed. Secretary Tilley stated that “we need money for treatment and social services that are not provided in prison because that is not the best treatment option.” Secretary Tilley repeated the need for additional funding for treatment and interventions through social services.

Recommendations from Senators and witnesses varied, however, the essential focus was on additional funding for states and communities to provide access, education and training, and support to people suffering from this disease.

It is clear from the HELP committee members and the witnesses that provided testimony that the opioid crisis is a significant problem in American communities and that bipartisan support to address this issue should be at the forefront of any decisions made by Congress. The power to do something requires funding and support from the Trump Administration. The HELP Committee will have additional hearings this month on the opioid crisis. To read the witnesses full testimony, click here.