A bi-partisan Congressional Leaders Forum highlighted efforts of federal leaders to combat the nation's drug abuse epidemic on Wednesday during the 5th National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in Atlanta, Georgia hosted by Operation UNITE. U.S. Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers (R-Ky.), founding co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Prescription Drug Abuse, led a robust discussion between U.S. Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Congressmen Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), William "Bill" Keating (D-Mass.), Frank Guinta (R-N.H.), Earl "Buddy" Carter (R-Ga.) and Evan Jenkins (R-W.Va.).
"The abuse of prescription medications requires a different approach than the traditional 'War on Drugs,'" said Congressman Rogers. "Unquestionably, law enforcement has to be a part of the solution, both at the local level, where we need to keep bad actors off the streets, and at the federal level, where we need to stem the tide of heroin from streaming into our communities. We need to engage the medical community to change our prescribing practices and re-think the way we treat pain; ensuring that treatment is available for those struggling to get their lives back on track; and educating our young people and their parents about the dangers of prescription painkillers - all of these things have to be a part of a comprehensive response to this crisis."
In the Fiscal Year 2016 (FY16) Omnibus Bill that passed in December, nearly $6 billion was included to address the drug abuse epidemic, including $2.12 billion for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for drug abuse prevention and treatment.
In discussing the need to block the influx of Fentanyl from China into the United States, Senator Markey said, "It's just as cheap as heroin and infinitely more powerful. We have to elevate the discussion to the levels of other major issues."
The FY16 HHS budget includes $70 million for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to help states address the challenges within their borders, $25 million for Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT), and $12 million to help train first responders on the administration of naloxone. Additionally, $400 million was included for the U.S. Department of Justice for drug task forces and other law enforcement.
Congressman Keating compared the number of opioid overdose deaths in America to the polio crisis in 1916 that killed 6,000 people, and the lack of awareness surrounding overdose deaths.
"We have 500% more deaths now from opioid overdoses," said Congressman Keating. "The stigma, the ignorance, the lack of attention is all being overcome right here."
The United States consumes 75% of the world's painkillers, and yet Americans constitute only 5% of the world's population.
Congressman Gosar advocated for more Veteran Treatment Courts nationwide. He said, "One in six veterans who served in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom suffer from a substance abuse issue."
"Those we seek to help are people not statistics," said Congressman Guinta. "We need the necessary tools and resources to not only combat the problem, but to eliminate and eradicate this problem."
Congressman Jenkins discussed the need for the Cradle Act, a bill he sponsored to expand care for newborns with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome by establishing facility guidelines. In West Virginia, he helped form the first residential pediatric recovery facility called, Lily's Place. "We have to give kids a healthy start at life," he said.
Congressman Carter focused on the need for more pharmacists to be involved in curbing the tide of prescription drug abuse.
"We are going to need help from the state boards of pharmacies," said Congressman Carter, a pharmacist by trade. "We need to tighten up medical boards and weed bad actors out. Pharmacists are among the most accessible healthcare professionals and (we) need to be more involved."
All six Congressmen serve on the Congressional Caucus for Prescription Drug Abuse.