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House committee backs over 2 dozen bills to tackle US opioid epidemic


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House committee backs over 2 dozen bills to tackle US opioid epidemic

The House Energy and Commerce Committee advanced more than two dozen bills aimed at tackling the U.S. opioid epidemic — sending the measures to the chamber floor for consideration.

Nearly three dozen more pieces of legislation are waiting in the wings, which the committee is expected to consider on May 17. The panel opted to split the markup into two sessions rather than hold another marathon hearing, like the Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee did when it passed the 57 bills over nine hours on April 25.

The bills that cleared the full committee on May 9 are expected to "help protect our communities and bolster enforcement efforts, strengthen our prevention and public health efforts and address coverage and payment issues in Medicare," said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., the panel's chairman.

He said the large number of bills were needed because "there is no silver bullet, no one-size-fits-all approach that will remedy the catastrophic effects of this crisis" — an epidemic that has been growing for close to two decades, taking the lives of 115 Americans per day.

Walden wants the House to take up the full package of bills before the end of May.

Is it enough?

Even with the massive number of small bills — now passed by the committee or planned for consideration May 17 — Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., said she was concerned House lawmakers were simply "nibbling around the edges of this opioid crisis."

She called for a "head-on" response akin to the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act — the largest federally funded program in the U.S. for people living with HIV/AIDS, which currently is allotted more than $2 billion annually by Congress.

Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., said that in conjunction with the opioid measures, lawmakers also must commit to protecting the nation's safety nets — Medicare, Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program — programs whose funding President Donald Trump and Republicans have sought to cut.

Those programs are key to solving the opioid crisis, she said.

Congress must also repair the "decimated" mental health system, Dingell added.

"People are taking these drugs because they're suffering from anxiety and depression sometimes," she said.

"The opioid epidemic is ravaging every corner of this country," the Michigan lawmaker added, noting that she has "lived on all sides of it," with a father who was addicted to opioids "at a time no one knew what it was," and a sister who ultimately died of a drug overdose, "after years of hell" of being unable to find a treatment program that worked.

"I know the pain, the fear, the desperation, the frustration of living with family members with addiction and the sadness when you don't win the battle," she said.

But Dingell also shared that her husband — former Michigan Congressman John Dingell, who is nearly 92 years old — was living in "intense pain" and must use opioids "because there are no other alternatives" that work for him.

Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., also expressed concern that a number of bills that "could have an immediate effect on the opioid epidemic" either did not make it out of the Health Subcommittee in April or whose future was uncertain because of a lack of commitment from Walden they will be considered at the May 17 hearing.

The bills

Among the measures that passed the committee was a bipartisan bill from Dingell and Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., the ACE Research Act, or H.R. 5002, which aims to speed the development of non-addictive painkillers by giving the National Institutes of Health additional flexibility to approve projects more quickly under the so-called "other transaction authority" — a mechanism the agency's chief pleaded with lawmakers at a December 2017 Senate hearing to grant him.

Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., co-sponsored a companion to the legislation in the Senate, known as S. 2406 — a measure that was cleared last month with 39 other bills by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. The Senate is expected to vote on that legislative package sometime this summer.

Also among the bills the Energy and Commerce Committee advanced to the House floor was a measure that would direct the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to evaluate the use of abuse-deterrent opioids in Medicare plans — the Abuse Deterrent Access Act, or H.R. 5582.

Lowering costs

Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., praised the authors of the bill for including a drug price study for abuse-deterrent formulations of opioids in the legislation.

She called on her colleagues to work on legislation that would require a similar study to evaluate the "skyrocketing" price of the overdose-reversal agent naloxone.

"We need to know how these price increases are affecting access," Schakowsky said.

She urged Trump to include measures aimed at reducing the cost of naloxone in his strategy to lower drug prices, which he plans to unveil May 11.

"We cannot allow pharmaceutical corporations to profit from this epidemic," Schakowsky said.