Senate Approves Sweeping New Legislation Shifting Policy Away from Punishment and Towards Treatment

Senate Approves Sweeping New Legislation Shifting Policy Away from Punishment and Towards Treatment

The new bill took three years of bipartisan Senate effort, and addresses many aspects of the battle to end the nation's opioid epidemic. But it may prove to be too little too late because of a serious lack of funding.

In a 94-to-1 vote that shows overwhelming bipartisan support in the war against addiction, the Senate has approved a new bill aimed at shifting federal drug policy away from punishment and more toward treatment and recovery. Called the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) of 2015, the bill was sponsored by Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). The new legislation was the product of nearly three years of work by both parties, reflecting unified support against the raging drug epidemic that holds America in its grip. The bill also reveals wide acceptance among lawmakers for a public health approach to addiction, based on recognition that the "war on drugs" has not been effective. "This is a strong signal that the United States Congress now understands this issue," Portman told the media after the bill passed. He said he's already sent messages to "his friend" House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis). "If the House does not act, then the Senate's work is a sham," Whitehouse added. The lone "no" vote was cast by Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.). "I'm distressed by opioid abuse as a dad and citizen," Sasse told The Omaha World-Herald. "Families, nonprofits and government at the state and local level can help. I'm not convinced fighting addiction - as opposed to stopping drug traffickers - is best addressed at the federal level." Absentee and non-voters included senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), and Mike Lee (R-Utah).

Financing is crucial and is not guaranteed

The bill may be able to draw on the $400 million approved by the White House's omnibus financing bill last December, although Senator Whitehouse said that may be unlikely. In any event, $400 million is only a third of what's really needed to make a difference - $1.2 billion - according to a White House statement last year. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) proposed an amendment to CARA that would have added $600 million in emergency funding to the bill. Shaheen and fellow Dems wanted emergency funding to help underfunded communities grappling with the problem. The amendment set aside $300 million for state programs focused on prevention, treatment and recovery. And $230 million was earmarked for law enforcement initiatives that included treatment alternatives to incarceration. Another $10 million would have gone to state and local law enforcement units that oversee communities with high levels of drug use, and a small portion was to expand treatment for pregnant and postpartum women. But the Shaheen amendment was blocked by the Republican side of the house. Shaheen's amendment was "duplicative" and "too punitive," Republicans argued - millions were already appropriated to enforcement in the omnibus bill, and the aim of CARA is to expand treatment, not enforcement. "The omnibus provided a modest boost to key federal programs, but it did not begin to address the magnitude of the opioid crisis," Shaheen said. "What the omnibus didn't provide was a way to direct funding to first responders and treatment providers quickly. My amendment fast-tracks urgently needed resources specifically to those on the front lines battling this pandemic." Many senators argued that the amendment was needed to make sure money gets quickly to communities ravaged by the drug epidemic. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who supported the legislation, slammed Republicans, saying, "They want to do things on the cheap, they want to pass things to pat ourselves on the back."

Good legislation that can't be ignored

"CARA is good legislation that will help fight the heroin pandemic in the long term," Shaheen said in a press release after the vote. "However, without real dollars behind this bill, it's the equivalent of offering a life preserver with no air in it. There is simply no excuse for Congress providing emergency funding for the Ebola and swine flu epidemics, while ignoring an opioid crisis that's killing a person a day in the Granite State." In fact, Shaheen's New Hampshire death rate is much the same across the country. And while the White House praised all other aspects of the bill, it criticized CARA for not including the funding needed to accomplish its ambitious steps. The CARA bill, which has 92 co-sponsors (66 Democrats and 26 Republicans) aims to do the following if it receives adequate funding:
  • Expands the availability of the opioid anti-overdose drug naloxone (Narcan) to first responders and law enforcement
  • Increases opioid abuse and prevention education efforts
  • Supports additional resources to identify and treat opioid-addicted prisoners
  • Expands prescription drug take-back programs
  • Strengthens state-level prescription monitoring drug programs
  • Creates prescription opioid and heroin treatment intervention programs

The bottom line

The provisions of the CARA bill, taken as a whole, are better and more comprehensive than the scattered provisions for dealing with opioid addiction in the massive, 2009-page omnibus bill from last December. As things stand, without financing, CARA is simply an idea with little means of becoming reality. CARA co-author Sheldon Whitehouse, the Rhode Island Democrat, is proud of his bill. But he summed the situation up rather succinctly: "Let's not pretend there is money for this." Here at Novus, we're helping people from all walks of life get their lives back. But we're also watching what happens on the big stage. The CARA bill shows a remarkable coming together of both parties to address the addiction problem. And it holds a lot of promise. We're hopeful that the vast potential of the CARA bill will be recognized by the House, and that the necessary funding will be found. Meanwhile, our commitment to helping victims of opioid addiction continues unabated. And our effective detox protocols continue to help hundreds of people begin drug-free lives every year. If you or someone you care for has a problem with opioids, don't hesitate to call Novus. We're always here to help.

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