The U.S. Senate on Monday voted overwhelmingly, 99-1, to approve a large package of bills aimed at combating the nation’s opioid addiction crisis. We congratulate the bipartisanship, which is absolutely necessary to address the dark disease gripping the country. It’s nevertheless concerning that entities closest to the problem may be left out of Congress’ deliberations.
Opioid addiction killed an estimated 72,000 Americans in 2017, more than automobile accidents and gun violence combined. The Opioid Crisis Response Act, as the package is called, directs funding to federal agencies to establish or expand programs dealing with prevention, treatment and recovery. It also adds money to various grants, which organizations like addiction recovery centers may be able to access.
But in typical fashion, the Senate combined 70 bills in one $8.4 billion spending package, and some bills are more worthy of support than others. The House passed a similar package last month.
It would have been wiser to debate individual bills and amend them as necessary. This would certainly take more time for a Congress pressed to finish its work before midterm elections, but those affected by opioid abuse deserve the best Congress can give them, and lumping dozens of bills together usually isn’t the best method.
Some elements of the package are promising, such as a measure to halt the inflow of fentanyl — a synthetic drug 50 times more potent than heroin — which is shipped largely from China and primarily via the U.S. Postal Service. Unlike commercial shippers, the Postal Service has no method for checking incoming foreign packages, but a provision in the bill requires the agency to start screening electronic data regarding contents of packages from overseas.
The federal government can and should take appropriate measures to combat the influx of dangerous drugs, but the real work of rehabilitation, education and crisis care happens at the state and local level. We hoped to see more effort from Congress to divert funds specifically to these entities that are best poised to help.
Utah has seen good results in dealing with the opioid addiction crisis, lowering its overdose deaths compared to previous years, and has done it largely without federal government involvement. Other states have seen similar success.
Some health experts claim the bill doesn’t go far enough, arguing the country needs $20 billion in federal spending to solve the problem.
On the other side, Daniel Raymond of the Harm Reduction Coalition told The Washington Post it’s unfair to tell affected citizens to wait for a federal grant that may or may not come.
Expressing similar sentiment was the one senator to vote no on the package, Utah’s Sen. Mike Lee, a politician who has on several occasions taken a principled stand in the minority. Speaking on the Senate floor, Lee argued, “It is not an accomplishment for us all to go home and pat ourselves on the backs for spending vast amounts of money on a large, blanket, federal spending package if it will not actually accomplish its goal, laudable though it is.”
Whether this spending package will accomplish its goal remains to be seen. But the Senate and House now go into conference to iron out differences in the legislation to battle America’s opioid addiction crisis, and they would do well to put the money into the hands of local leaders, rather than putting everything into federal programs.