Following up on last week’s Finance Committee hearing on the increasing prescription drug/heroin use, the United States Senate spent last week’s floor debate on consideration of S 524, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act or “CARA” for short.   The bill was introduced by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) with the bipartisan co-sponsorship of Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Senator Kelley Ayotte (R-NH), Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) and Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL).

As the prescription-drug-abuse-to-heroin-use spreads across many congressional districts and states it has captured the attention of Congress.  The CARA Act would take several steps to address the substance abuse issue.  The legislation would not provide immediate funding since that would depend on a later appropriation but it amends several federal laws to increase potential funding for treatment, enforcement and prevention.

The Senate began the floor debate last week and it is hoped they will finish and send it over to the House later this week.  Several votes were taken on amendments but one of the more contentious was a vote on Senator Jean Shaheen (D-NH)’s amendment that sought to provide an immediate emergency appropriation of $600 million that would assure funding if the bill becomes law.  That amendment failed however, when a motion to take it up fell short by a vote of 48 yes to 47 no votes.  Sixty yes votes would’ve suspended budget rules to make the emergency funding available.

One part of the bill would direct HHS to convene a pain management best practices inter-agency task force. The task force would be required to establish best practices for pain management and for prescribing pain medication.  In addition, the task force would develop a strategy for disseminating those best practices. It is believed that the current heroin epidemic is directly linked to the overuse of prescription pain pills such as oxycodone. Many adults and some young people are getting addicted through the prescription route and then replacing those drugs with heroin which may be much cheaper and plentiful than prescribed or trafficked prescription drugs.

The bill makes a number of changes to the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968.  A provision directs state substance abuse and criminal justice agencies to jointly address the use of opioids and heroin among pregnant and parenting female offenders in a state and to promote public safety, public health, and family permanence and well-being.  It also directs the Attorney General to issue regular reports on the use of family based treatment for custodial parents and their children.

The legislation also amends the Public Health Services Act by authorizing the Center for Substance-Abuse Treatment to award grants that would enable state substance abuse agencies, local governments, nonprofits, and Indian tribes are tribal organizations to better address and target big increases in heroin and other opioids use.

Signaling just how far Congress has turned in the past 25 years, the bill amends the Higher Education Act of 1965 to prohibit the Department of Education from including any questions about the sale or use of illegal drugs as part of the Free Application and Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. During the mid-1990s, including when Congress was debating welfare reform, several members of Congress attempted to restrict many forms of federal assistance including college loans to anyone convicted of drug use or sale.

The Senate resumes debate today on this bill that came out of the Judiciary Committee.  Also in the works are potential bills that will address substance abuse from the Senate HELP Committee and possibly the Senate Finance Committee with the Families First legislation.

CWLA will dedicate an entire National Conference, What Works for Families Affected by Substance Use, August 1 through 3, Hyatt Regency, Orange County, California, REGISTER HERE