Lawmakers step off Capitol Hill to explore solutions to opioid crisis

Photo: The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) – The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee met at Johns Hopkins Hospital Tuesday for an “in the field” hearing on the growing opioid crisis in America.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order in March 2017 establishing a President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, with Governor Chris Christie, R–N.J., as chairman. The purpose of the commission was to study ways to combat the ongoing crisis while working in conjunction with the White House Office of American Innovation, led by Senior Adviser to the President Jared Kushner.

“This is an epidemic that knows no boundaries and shows no mercy, and we will show great compassion and resolve as we work together on this important issue,” Trump said.

In October, President Trump declared the opioid crisis a national emergency.

“This epidemic is a national health emergency, unlike many of us we've seen and what we've seen in our lifetimes. Nobody has seen anything like what's going on now,” Trump said.

More than 90 Americans die every day from related opioid overdoses, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. At least 40 of those deaths are from prescription opioids.

The Centers for Disease Control estimated 64,000 people could die from drug overdose in 2016.

Breaking with tradition, Ranking Member Elijah Cummings, D-M.D., gave his opening remarks first as the committee was meeting in his home state. He commented on the number of lawmakers who turned out for the hearing off Capitol grounds.

“I have never seen as many members attend any field hearing as long as I have been in Congress. I believe today’s remarkable turnout reflects the fact that the opioid crisis is truly a national emergency and does not discriminate based on politics,” Cummings said. “Every 20 minutes someone dies from an opioid overdose. If today’s hearing lasts for two hours, half a dozen families will have lost a parent, a sibling or child to opioids.”

He pressed upon the committee and Congress to ensure that naloxone, a drug that treats narcotic overdoses, is available to all who need it.

“But here is a challenge, drug companies have continued to hike the price of this 45-year-old drug and communities have been forced to ration it,” Cummings said. “The president should act now to make sure naloxone is available at a reasonable price wherever and whenever it is needed.”

Christie suggested governments buy the drug in bulk.

“Governments starting with the federal government should use their purchasing power to make bulk purchases of naloxone at lower prices,” Christie said.

Currently, funds for the distribution of naloxone could be distributed by two government agencies. Under the Public Health and Safety Act, the Department of Health and Human Services can distribute the drug; under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are able to distribute it.

The governor reflected on his experience with FEMA during Hurricane Sandy and urged lawmakers to choose HHS for the distribution of the drug.

Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R- S.C., stated in his opening remarks that he believes physicians have a significant role to play in combatting this epidemic.

“I want to make sure the DEA and DOJ are effectively going to the source of prescriptions issued outside the course of a professional medical practice,” Gowdy said. “The issue comes down to those of good continence earnestly seeking a solution and those of a malevolent continence bent to profit off of other people’s addiction and pain.”

Hearing witness Acting Director of National Drug Control Policy Richard J. Baum said that Prescription Drug Management Programs (PDMP) could help.

“CDC has expanded its efforts to target opioid policies at the state level to all 50 states, including expanding and improving PDMPs and the training of providers,” Baum said.

Witness Co-Director, Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Doctor Caleb Alexander said all doctors should be required to use PDMPs.

“For example, both assessments agree that providers should be required to use prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP) databases, that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDCs) prescribing guidelines should be standard practice nationwide, and that high-quality, evidence-based addiction treatment should be available to those who seek it,” Alexander said.

During the hearing, Christie equated the high number of deaths to a large-scale terror attack.

“One hundred seventy-five people are dying a day, which for someone who comes from where I come from, the most powerful analogy is that this means that we have a September 11th every two and a half weeks,” Christie said. “If we had a terrorist organization that was invading our country, and killing 175 of our citizens every day, what would you be willing to pay to make it stop? We don’t ask that question in this country. And the reason we don’t ask this question in my view is because we still believe that, this addiction is a moral failure.”

The New Jersey Governor added that incarcerating those addicted to opioids would not solve the problem, but increased funding for drug treatment programs may facilitate that change. He also suggested placing drug courts in every federal district.

Witness Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen stated that medical health professionals often struggle to provide services due to lack of funding.

“We do not have the treatment capacity, people looking to us for help fall through the cracks, overdose, and die,” Wen said.

She also stated that the commission’s report did not identify substantial additional funding.

“We on the front lines know what works and we desperately need new resources not repurposed funding that will divert from other critical priorities. These funds should also be given directly to communities of greatest need,” Wen said. “Cities have been fighting the epidemic for years, and we shouldn’t have to jump through additional hoops, competing for grants and having funding pass from the states to cities will cost times and many more lives.”

The report issued by the commission also mentions the growing threat of the highly potent synthetic opioid, fentanyl analog, and carfentanil. Christie explained to the committee that fentanyl and carfentanil enter the United States from China through the mail.

“We also need to make clear to the Chinese that this is an act of war. You are sending this stuff into our country to kill our people,” Christie said.

Baum said the U.S. is actively working to confront that issue.

“The United States has made progress in working with China, the primary source country for illicitly manufactured fentanyl and other synthetic opioids; we expect this cooperation will increase,” Baum said.

The governor also proposed discussing plans for more significant finical commitment to battling the crisis at the National Governors Association Meeting in February 2018.

Governor Christie added that education and information needed to be communicated to children as well. However, the government and public service announcement need to modernize the way their reach their young audience.

“We need to modernize the way we are educating our children. We should be demanding of companies like Google and Facebook who are such predominate players in communication today for young people; they need to step up to the plate and start educating our kids.” Christie said.

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