On Tuesday, February 23 the Senate Finance Committee held a hearing on the prescription drug to heroin addiction issue.  The hearing highlights the continued intense interest within Congress on the issue of heroin and opioids use. With sixteen senators in attendance at one time or another there was a great deal of interest on a topic that included the drug addiction impact on the general population as well as the child welfare population.

The committee heard testimony from Mr. Allan Coukell, Pew Charitable Trusts, Dr. Nancy K. Young, Children and Family Futures, Mr. David Hart, Oregon Department of Justice.

Several members on the Committee focused on recent legislation that they had introduced or cosponsored speaking out in favor of federal action based on what is happening in their respective states.

Chairman Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) opened with comments that highlighted conditions in Utah indicating that in 2014, 289 people had died in that state from heroin addiction.  He also flagged several other bills that other members of the committee highlighted later in the morning hearing.  He did reference the impact on child welfare and said that there were discussions between the Senate and House taking place regarding their draft bill (Families First) and its potential for assisting in drug treatment for child welfare families.  Ranking Member Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) addressed the issue by saying he thought there needed to be a three-part strategy: increased treatment, increased prevention and increased enforcement.  He also echoed some of Hatch’s hopes in regard to the Families First Act.

Nancy Young provided the focus on the child welfare aspect highlighting what is becoming more evident, that foster care numbers and child neglect rates are being impacted.  In her testimony she pointed out that of the 265,000 children that entered foster care in 2014 the largest population were infants. That is a point also highlighted by the Administration in their recent budget proposals dealing with the substance abuse issue.

Young pointed out that children under six now represent 40 percent of the children in care.  She also emphasized the need for more accurate child welfare data in regard to the role of substance abuse in the child welfare system.  She discussed recent work in Ohio and the impact of waiting lists for drug treatment saying that “over the past five years, parents with opioid use disorders have increased the number of children placed in care at the same time overall resources to serve families have decreased.”

Wait lists within drug treatment can be an even greater challenge compared to other human services wait lists.  An individual recognizing their addiction may not be able to wait many weeks for the treatment and a delay in such treatment could be a lost opportunity.  Within child welfare there are also conflicting federal time limits with state child welfare agencies directed to make decisions on the termination of parental rights.

In regard to other legislation, Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) discussed S 524,  the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2015, cosponsored by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) that would expand educational and prevention efforts, treatment services, alternatives to incarceration and several other strategies.  There was also significant discussion about legislation by Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) that would permit a “lock-in” strategy within the Medicare Part D prescription drug program.  That strategy, now used in state Medicaid programs, tracks prescription drug data and if there is a high level of use of opioids a state can assign patients to one doctor and one pharmacy for prescribing.

Senators Stabenow (D-MI) discussed legislation cosponsored by Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) the Excellence in Mental Health Act.  A bill that would fully fund 24 states that qualified for a planning grant to create parity between community mental health services and physical health services.  The bill is a follow up to an earlier version that was attached to a 2014 bill “Protecting Access to Medicare Act.  Other comments of note, included Senator Chuck Schumer talking about Senator Jean Shaheen’s(D-NH) efforts to provide some $600 million in emergency funding to address the opioid/heroin epidemic.

Nancy Young was asked by Senator Hatch whether or not other child welfare and flexible funds including Title IV-B and SSBG could be used to address the treatment shortage but she highlighted the fact that that would mean taking funding from other child welfare services needed by families.

Next steps were not outlined but the increased focus on heroin/opioid use will continue in Congress.   CWLA will focus more attention on this issue  at the April 18-20, 2016 CWLA National Advocacy Summit, Washington DC: Investing in What It Takes: A Full Continuum of Care REGISTER NOW! and What Works for Families Affected by Substance Use, August 1 through 3, Hyatt Regency, Orange County, California, REGISTER HERE