Immigration policy got the most media attention in last weekend's brief shutdown, but as lawmakers scramble to find a way to keep the government running in the coming weeks, a bipartisan group of lawmakers are also clamoring to put the nation's opioid epidemic on center stage. Even while Democrats crossed the proverbial picket line and voted to turn the government's lights back on, many were angry that the bill didn't include any new money for the opioid crisis. "It didn't do anything," says Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). "That's why we've got to get a budget agreement that's going to give us the resources that communities need to help fight this epidemic."
Since he was elected president, Donald Trump has done little to combat the opioid crisis. In October, he declared the crisis a public health emergency, but stopped short of issuing a national-emergency declaration, which would have allowed funds to be made immediately available to the hardest-hit communities. He set up an opioid commission to focus on the crisis while offering policy recommendations to lawmakers, but critics say the commission is toothless. (Former Democratic Representative Patrick Kennedy, who has struggled with addiction himself, is now calling the commission a "sham.") Many Democrats also distrust the new Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar because he used to be a senior executive for the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly. And more than a year into the Trump administration, the White House still has yet to nominate a new head for White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
That spotty track record isn't being lost on Capitol Hill. "In light of the Trump administration's constant abdication of leadership when it comes to the opioid crisis – a lot of committees, a lot of talk; no action – it is important now more than ever for Congress to take immediate action," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) told reporters in his first press conference after Democrats relented and voted to fund the government. But this is a new year and a growing bipartisan chorus on Capitol Hill is calling on party leaders to focus attention on the opioid crisis, and they argue November's upcoming elections helps spur their cause.
"In this legislative calendar year, everyone is going to be looking – particularly Republican leadership – for weeks where we can do bipartisan, middle-America type concerns," says Representative Ryan Costello (R-PA). He's a member of the Bipartisan Heroin Task Force, which is comprised of more than 100 lawmakers, roughly split between Republicans and Democrats – a rare co-mingling of opposing sides in this bitterly divided Washington. They're already busy at work behind the scenes trying to get their fellow policy makers to make the opioid crisis a top priority this year, and while they’re calling for more funding right now they also have set their eyes on much more ambitious goals.
The group – nearly a quarter of the U.S. House of Representatives – is made up of rural and urban lawmakers, from the far right to the progressive left. They've laid out an ambitious agenda for this year that's focused on getting a package of eight new bills passed and signed into law by President Trump.
One of their bills would direct funds to substance-abuse treatment programs in rural areas, while another would require states that get federal health grants to track both written opioid prescriptions and what pharmacists dole out. Another proposal would force all Medicare Part-D prescriptions to be transmitted electronically by 2020 in order to curb pharmacy shopping. Still other bills are aimed at stopping the illegal trafficking of opioids.
The wide-ranging focus of this legislative package is because some lawmakers on the panel come from law enforcement backgrounds while others come from the medical community. For others, the crisis is becoming increasingly personal.
"I just buried a friend of mine in the past month. It touches each and every one of us and we can't ignore it," Representative Donald Norcross (D-NJ), a co-chair of the task force, told reporters when the group rolled out its agenda this month. The eight new bills are being added to the nine bipartisan bills the group endorsed last year. One of those bills seeks to increase training for doctors who reportedly only receive about four hours of opioid training during their four years in medical school. "This isn't about shoving mandates," Norcross says. "It's about bringing those medical schools together and having that discussion that addresses the educational issue." The full-court press comes as more than 60,000 Americans are now reportedly overdosing from heroin, fentanyl or opioids annually.
"It's like a Vietnam War every year – every year – to be losing this many people," says Representative Tom MacArthur (R-NJ), another task force co-chair. "And this is a crisis ultimately that is a personal tragedy and a family tragedy multiplied by the thousands and by the tens of thousands." For Republicans on the panel, a part of their job is to convince their conservative party leaders to devote billions of dollars more in funding to the epidemic. "All of these initiatives go nowhere if they're not adequately funded – funding and accountability," MacArthur adds.
While some Democrats are calling for around $25 billion to combat the crisis, many Republicans balk at that number. "Well, I don't think you can just solve it by money," Republican Sen. Richard Shelby, a senior member of the Senate spending committee, tells Rolling Stone. "We've got to have some kind of treatment program, and we've got to stop the drugs. It's supply and demand and they create their own market."
Lawmakers are also exploring ways to be nimble as they try to tackle the epidemic. "I think in addition to the number, we ought to be interested in annual flexibility, so that we can move in a direction and keep moving there when it's working and look other places when we see something's not working," Republican Senator Roy Blunt tells Rolling Stone. "This is probably something that everything you try to do isn't going to work, and you don't want to be committed to it for five or six years until you find out that we have hit something here that really is returning the kind of return that we want to see."
While lawmakers continue to debate the amount of funding that's immediately needed to stem the opioid crisis, Republican leaders in the House have promised members of the Heroin Task Force that they'll devote at least one entire week this year to taking up an array of their proposals focused on the epidemic. That's giving advocates hope that this year will witness more progress on this increasingly bipartisan issue. "Heroin doesn't choose R's and D's – it impacts everybody in every district across the country, in every region," Representative Ann Kuster (D-NH), another co-chair of the task force, tells Rolling Stone. "I have no doubt we will get this done."