If you visit the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Niswonger Children’s Hospital in Johnson City, you might see what I did this Spring — a third of the newborn babies in the unit experiencing withdrawal symptoms due to opioid drug exposure in the womb.
Last year, more Tennesseans died from opioid overdoses than were killed in car crashes. The opioid crisis is ravaging our Tennessee communities, and this week, the United States Senate took a big step to help Tennessee fight back.
This week, the Senate is expected to pass what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell calls “landmark legislation” – a bill I am leading that includes proposals by 70 senators to respond to the crisis today, and begin to turn the tide in opioid misuse for generations to come.
The Senate health committee I chair held seven hearings on the opioid crisis to better inform the Opioid Crisis Response Act of 2018 – we heard from governors, doctors, addiction experts, family members and others on how the federal government can be the best possible partner as we work to combat the opioid crisis.
A multipronged solution to the opioid crisis
Here are 10 of the key provisions in this bill:
The STOP ACT—to stop illegal drugs, including fentanyl, from coming across the border through the mail: The Tennessee Department of Health reported in August that deaths from fentanyl increased 70 percent from 2016 to 2017. President Trump has urged us to pass this legislation. He tweeted that “It is outrageous that Poisonous Synthetic Heroin Fentanyl comes pouring into the U.S. Postal System from China. We can, and must, END THIS NOW!”
New non-addictive painkillers, research and fast-track:I call non-addictive pain killers the “Holy Grail” of solving the opioid crisis, and this bill will fast-track their development. The National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins has predicted that, with this bill’s provision, a new non-addictive painkiller could be found within the next 5 years.
Blister packs for opioids, such as a 3- or 7-day supply: This provision will give the Food and Drug Administration the authority to require drug manufacturers to package certain opioids in blister packs such as a supply of three to seven pills, which help people from getting more drugs than they need.
More medication–assisted treatment: The bill would give more people access to this treatment, which, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “operates to normalize brain chemistry, block the euphoric effects of alcohol and opioids, relieve physiological cravings, and normalize body functions without the negative effects of the abused drug.” When combined with counseling, this treatment can help people return to normal lives and prevent overdoses.
Prevent “doctor-shopping” by improving state prescription drug monitoring programs: People with an opioid use disorder often try to seek prescription opioid painkillers from multiple doctors—a practice known as “doctor shopping.” This would encourage states to share in the data in their state’s prescription drug monitoring program with other states, so people can’t just go across state lines for another prescription.
More behavioral and mental health providers: The bill would help encourage more people to enter these professions, by allowing the federal government to repay providers’ college loans.
Support for comprehensive opioid recovery centers: These comprehensive centers provide treatment, housing, job training, counseling, and more, all in one place for those in recovery.
Help for babies born in opioid withdrawal: I saw the need for this firsthand when I visited Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Niswonger Children’s Hospital. When a pregnant mom has an opioid use disorder, her baby will require special care at birth and in the weeks afterward.
Help for mothers with opioid use disorders: Increasing access for mothers to more treatment options, especially family-focused residential treatment centers, allows families to get back together sooner—which has better long-term benefits for the mother, child, and family-unit.
More early intervention with vulnerable children who have experienced trauma: The legislation would help with identifying, preventing, and mitigating the effects of trauma on infants, children, youth, and their families. Identifying the reasons that children turn to opioids or other illicit drugs is important to stopping the cycle of drug abuse, and helping stop our nation’s opioid crisis.
In March, Congress passed the omnibus appropriations bill that included $4.7 billion to fight the opioid crisis, and we are set to pass another bill by the end of the month that includes an additional $3.7 billion – that’s $8.4 billion within a few months.
The challenge of solving the opioid crisis has often been described as needing a moonshot. But it will cannot be solved by a single agency in Washington, D.C.
What the federal government can do is create an environment so that everyone—governors, mayors, judges, counselors, law enforcement, doctors, nurses and families—can succeed in fighting the crisis.
The bill the Senate passed this week aims to do that, and there is a bipartisan sense of urgency for Congress to complete our work so we can send a final product to President Trump’s desk.