The Senate finished its work on S 524, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act  (CARA), when it approved the legislation on Thursday by a vote of 94 to 1.   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).  The lone no vote was by Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) who signaled his feelings that the role of the federal government was better suited to addressing the law enforcement part of the anti-drug strategy.  The presidential candidates were not in attendance to vote.

The CARA Act, which still needs to be adopted by the House of Representatives and would then need to be funded through the annual appropriations process before it could have an impact, takes several steps to address the substance abuse issue.  The legislation amends several federal laws to increase potential funding for treatment, enforcement and prevention.

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 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.

Democrats were not pleased that an amendment by Senator Jean Shaheen (D-NH) that sought to provide immediate emergency appropriation of $600 million was not included.  That amendment failed when a motion to take it up was 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.

In voting no on the final bill, Senator Sasse said, “I’m distressed by opioid abuse as a dad and a citizen.  Families, non-profits and government at the state and local level can help. I’m not convinced fighting addiction—as opposed to stopping drug traffickers—is best addressed at the federal level.”

On this topic, the next Senate Action takes place on Wednesday when the Senate HELP Committee debates a mental health reform measure as well as several other smaller bills to address substance abuse. (see below). 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