Policy

House Prepares for Week of Action on Opioid Bills

‘Collectively these bills do not go far enough’

Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., participates in the House Democrats’ news conference on health care reform in the Capitol on Thursday, July 20, 2017. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House will begin a voting marathon Tuesday on 34 bills designed to address the opioid epidemic. While most are not likely to be contentious, two have previously stirred controversy.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., reserved about a week and a half of floor time to discuss opioid legislation. Additional bills are likely to be considered next week, such as four bill packages the House Ways and Means Committee approved with bipartisan support.

Even if Democrats end up voting for most of the bills, some appeared poised to use the debate to make points about Republicans’ overall record on health care. 

“Collectively these bills do not go far enough in providing the resources necessary for an epidemic of this magnitude,” said Energy and Commerce ranking member Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J. “While these bills are well intentioned, Republicans’ ongoing efforts to repeal the ACA, gut Medicaid, and take away critical protections for people with pre-existing conditions would have a devastating impact on people who suffer from opioid substance abuse.”

One bill under consideration that remains controversial would create a new class on the controlled substances schedule for compounds related to the super-potent pain medication fentanyl. The legislation, by Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., is slated for a Friday vote. It would also make it easier to prosecute cases that involve fentanyl-like substances. 

Critics of that bill argue it would justify overly broad bans on drugs and hinder drug research.

The director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Nora Volkow, testified at an April House Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee hearing that while the idea is well-intentioned, it could make it more difficult to study these types of drugs to be able to treat addicted people.

“We need to have countermeasures, and the only way that we’re going to have countermeasures is [by] doing research,” said Volkow.

Supporters of another bill that was originally contentious recently worked out with critics some changes that should smooth its way to passage. 

The House is expected to vote Thursday on the bill by Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Mich., that would create new requirements for the U.S. Postal Service and Customs and Border Protection to help prevent the import of synthetic opioids through the international mail system. Packages would be required to include electronic tracking data about their contents, a prerequisite that private shipping companies like FedEx already use.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, criticized it even as the House Ways and Means Committee approved the bill by voice vote. Portman, who wrote a rival bill, initially opposed the House measure because he said it would not give law enforcement sufficient authorities and tools to intercept these drugs.

Last week, the Senate and House released an updated version of the Bishop bill that reconciles the two versions. The new compromise, which Portman backs, would impose stricter requirements on the USPS and CBP than the original House bill. 

“The Ways and Means Committee passed legislation several weeks ago with broad bipartisan support, and we have been working since then to further strengthen the bill to ensure that our government is held accountable,” said Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas.

Other bills

Many of the bills the House will vote on this week were among the least controversial during subcommittee and committee consideration. The bulk of the bills this week will be considered Tuesday when the House will debate 26 bills advanced by the Energy and Commerce Committee. 

The Energy and Commerce panel approved 57 opioid-related bills this year, with the majority advancing on voice votes with bipartisan support.

Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., named the opioid epidemic the top priority of his committee for this year and previously set a goal of seeing a floor vote on their bills by late May or early June.

“Over the course of the next two weeks, the House once again will act on meaningful legislation to help combat the opioid crisis. Just as this isn’t our first legislative foray to fight this scourge, it certainly won’t be our last,” said Walden and Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee Chairman Michael C. Burgess, R-Texas, in a joint statement. “We’ve heard from our constituents loud and clear as this crisis has continued to evolve, and will soon advance solutions that can provide real help.”

The bills under consideration include legislation more commonly known as Jessie’s Law that would make it easier for a physician to learn about a consenting patient’s history of addiction.

Another would allow hospice workers to dispose of a deceased patient’s unused medications to prevent abuse.

A bill by Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., would provide the National Institutes of Health with new authorities to speed up research on non-addictive pain medicines, an initiative that is also a key priority of Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

The House will vote on four bills Wednesday that were discussed in a hearing by the Education and the Workforce Committee including one to establish an interagency task force to improve the federal response to families impacted by substance abuse disorders.

Lawmakers also will debate a bill by House Energy and Commerce member Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., that would improve the Food and Drug Administration’s tools to intercept illicit drugs such as fentanyl.

The House will also consider a bill by House Judiciary Committee member Keith Rothfus, R-Pa., that would reauthorize a comprehensive opioid abuse grant program through 2021. 

“Our nation is in the midst of the deadliest drug crisis in history,” said McCarthy in a statement Monday, emphasizing the need for Congress to act.

Andrew Siddons contributed to this report. 

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