WASHINGTON — U.S. Senator Chris Murphy on Tuesday joined other members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in support of sweeping legislation aimed at addressing the nation’s opioid epidemic.
The committee voted unanimously in favor of the Opioid Crisis Response Act, a composite of 40 proposals submitted by Republicans and Democrats that proponents hope will reduce overdose-related deaths and addiction to heroin and opioid-based painkillers.
During the HELP committee meeting Murphy had sought to amend the bill to allow the Department of Labor to impose civil penalties against insurers or employers that do not cover mental health and addiction services at the same rate as physical health benefits. It failed 11-12, largely along party lines.
“We all know from talking to our constituents that there is still not parity today,” Murphy said. “Too many families are running into unconscionable obstacles when trying to get their insurance companies to pay for addiction treatment.”
In 2016, Murphy co-authored legislation — signed into law — that strengthened enforcement of mental health and addiction parity laws. Murphy noted that Trump’s Labor Secretary Acosta had asked Congress for the authority to be able to enforce the parity law against insurers and employers and impose civil penalties.
U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the committee, said the legislation will “help create an environment for states to succeed in fighting the opioid crisis.”
“Solving the opioid crisis might require the energy and resources of a moonshot, but ultimately it is not something that can be solved by an agency in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “What the federal government can do is create an environment so that everyone — judges, mayors, counselors, police officers, Drug Enforcement Administration agents, doctors, nurses, parents, pharmacists, and hospitals — can succeed in fighting the crisis.”
U.S. Senator Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat of the committee, said the bipartisan legislation “takes so many important steps to improve prevention, treatment, and response to the opioid epidemic so many families and communities are struggling with today.”
The legislation melds together different proposals from 38 senators on how to address the crisis, he said.
Among those proposals are provisions from S. 2609 the Recovery COACH Act that Murphy introduced last month. The bill is modeled after Connecticut recovery efforts for those struggling with addiction. It would provide states with grants to ensure individuals with substance abuse disorder have access to specially trained coaches who can serve as mentors, provide insight and encouragement, support for families and help patients navigate treatment options, according to Murphy.
“We’ve had a lot of success in Connecticut with recovery coaches, and today’s vote brings us one step closer to expanding our state’s recovery coach model to communities across the country,” Murphy said. “The opioid crisis is clearly getting worse, but I’m hopeful that Congress is finally taking big action with the Opioid Crisis Response Act.”
According to Alexander, some of the other proposals in the bill include:
• Improve grants to states for prevention, response, and treatment to mitigate the opioid crisis.
• Spur development and research of non-addictive painkillers.
• Encourage responsible prescribing behavior by clarifying FDA authority to require packaging and disposal options for certain drugs, such as opioids to allow a set treatment duration — for example “blister packs,” for patients who may only need a 3 or 7 day supply of opioids.
• Improve detection and seizure of illegal drugs, such as fentanyl, through stronger FDA and Customs and Border Protection coordination.
• Provide support for states to improve their Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs (PDMPs) and encourage data sharing between states so doctors and pharmacies can know if patients have a history of substance misuse.
• Address the effects of the opioids crisis on infants, children, and families, including by helping states improve plans of safe care for infants born with neonatal abstinence syndrome and helping to address child and youth trauma.
The bill, however, has raised some criticism for failing to provide the funding needed to address the crisis. G. Caleb Alexander, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness, told Vox News that “Without money behind them, the bills aren’t going to do a whole lot.”