Wyden: 'Lot of work to go before the Congress can take a victory lap on opioids'
Transcript of Sen. Ron Wyden on Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016
If ever there was an issue that should be unifying to the Congress - that should bring Democrats and Republicans together to surmount a challenge - it should be the raging crisis of opioid addiction in America. This crisis is indiscriminate of politics and geography. It is ripping through our communities like wildfire. A recent editorial in one of my home state newspapers captured the extreme urgency of this struggle with the headline, "Opioids are winning."
Now after months of work, the Senate and House have come up with a bill. Colleagues, here's my take on the final product. This bill is a half measure, the work is not complete, and nobody should be doing victory laps. The reality is, this proposal leaves on the table an awful lot of opportunities to fight the battle against addiction.
A landmark study that came out a handful of months ago found that 80 percent of people hooked on painkillers or heroin aren't getting treatment. Under this bill, the waiting lines won't get much shorter. The thousands of babies born each year with an addiction to narcotics - this bill won't be enough to bring that number down to zero, where everybody knows it should be. In short, opioids will keep winning the war.
The package before the Senate has the kernels of a meaningful game plan, but in my view, it's a hollow piece of legislation. It sets up programs that could be a big help to people who are struggling to get their lives back on track, but it doesn't make the investments that would deliver on that promise.
Senators should know that doing only half the job now means that members will be leading with their chins when the appropriations process returns later this year. In this bill there's a program for pregnant women and new mothers suffering from an opioid use disorder. There's a program to help states take important strides when it comes to prescription drug monitoring, and there's better tracking within the VA. There's a plan to strengthen the networks of support in our communities that are best equipped to reach out to people who need help and fight addiction - physicians, employers, the criminal justice system, and more.
The bill, looking big picture, green lights the National Institutes of Health putting new energy into the development of safe, non-addictive, effective, and affordable drugs and treatments for chronic pain. And it sets up a task force and grants for states to construct what I see as a fresh approach to pain management and opioids - including education programs, treatment, recovery efforts, prescription monitoring, and strategies to prevent overdose and loss of life.
Getting those proposals off the ground is a first step, but the Senate is about to head home and put off the issue of funding to a later date. Nobody should be celebrating until the Congress finishes the job in the appropriations process.
And colleagues, there are also big questions about some particular pieces of this package. I'm extremely concerned, for example, about a provision that gives 75 million dollars in special kickbacks to the manufacturers of opioids that are considered so-called "abuse deterrents." I believe it is wrong for this bill, which does only half the job for Americans struggling with addiction, to give an unjustified windfall to drug companies.
I offered an amendment that said let's get rid of this windfall, and let's redirect that money to help pregnant women enrolled in Medicaid - women of limited means who are struggling to fight addiction and get back on track. But my amendment was defeated by members on the other side. So colleagues, let's be clear about what that means. This bill does not put funding into the programs that would help Americans who need help overcoming addiction, but it does give a 75 million dollar windfall to drug companies. In my view, that's a tough imbalance to explain.
Here's my bottom line, colleagues. There's a lot of work to go before the Congress can take a victory lap on its opioid legislation. I've heard stories like those again and again across my home state, which, it pains me to say, ranks fourth-worst in the country for abuse of opioids. A lot of those stories involve Oregonians who go from pills to heroin to a tragic ending. I've heard from doctors and pharmacists about the dangers these drugs pose and the incredible difficulty of treating pain safely. I've heard from advocates and community leaders who are doing everything they can to fight the crisis but still see it growing, particularly among young people. I'd wager that every member of this body is hearing similar stories.
So my colleagues and I on this side of the aisle will be here in the months ahead, and we will call on Senators to finish the job. Until then, the opioid crisis will continue raging unabated, lives will continue to be lost, and families will continue to be torn apart.