The Slatest

Senate Passes Bipartisan Package of Bills to Battle America’s Opioid Crisis

A man uses heroin under a bridge where he lives with other addicts in Kensington, Philadelphia.
A man uses heroin, an opioid drug made from morphine, under a bridge where he lives with other addicts in Kensington, Philadelphia.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In a bipartisan move to confront America’s opioid crisis, the Senate passed a comprehensive package of bills Monday, including provisions that would stop illegal drugs at the border and funding research on non-addictive pain killers.

The Opioid Crisis Response Act, which includes 70 provisions, garnered overwhelming support from five Senate committees and contributions from more than 70 lawmakers. The bill passed after a 99-1 vote, with only Utah Sen. Mike Lee dissenting.

“There is a bipartisan sense of urgency because this is our worst public health epidemic, and it affects virtually every community,” tweeted Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, who authored the legislation.

The legislation will authorize a total of $7.9 billion from federal funds for health agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to an estimate by the Congressional Budget Office.

The bill is largely a three-part attack on the opioid crisis: preventing the flow of illegal drugs into the country, supporting patient recovery, and finding long term solutions.

The “STOP Act” aims to prevent illegal drugs like fentanyl, a potent, synthetic opioid, from crossing the U.S. border. Introduced by Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, the act requires the U.S. Postal Service to inspect foreign packages and collect information about their contents. As of now, only private shippers like FedEx and UPS are required to gather such data.

The legislation also would fund opioid recovery centers, peer support groups, and a pilot program to provide recovering addicts with temporary housing. Moreover, the measures include plans to research non-addictive painkillers.

Despite federal efforts to treat opioids as a national public health emergency, overdose deaths have increased steadily. Overdose deaths reached 72,000 last year, a 10 percent increase from 2016. Most of these deaths resulted from opioids. The sharpest increase occurred among deaths related to fentanyl and synthetic opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A line graph showing total drug deaths in the U.S. from 1999 to 2017.
More than 72,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2017.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Database, “WONDER”

There is still a big hurdle left to overcome. The Senate has to reconcile its bill with what the House passed in June. The biggest difference in the two bills is Medicaid coverage. The House bill says Medicare should cover opioid treatment, repealing an obscure rule known as the Institution for Mental Diseases exclusion rule. Previously, the “IMD exclusion” rule prohibited Medicaid from paying for addiction treatment centers with more than 16 beds. In contrast, the Senate bill makes slight changes to the IMD exclusion rule. It ensures that Medicaid covers pregnant and postpartum women in IMD centers, but not others who may be housed in those same centers.

The chambers plan to vote on a final bill in the next two weeks, Sen. Alexander said, and get it to the president’s desk in early October.

“The House and Senate measures share the same goals,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan in a press release. “Ultimately, we have to attack the root cause of this crisis, which are the opioids themselves—but these are important steps to take toward that goal.”