Austin American Statesman: Doggett: Flurry of bills to fight opioid crisis fall short, Texas lawmaker says

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, on the House floor this week compared a slate of bills targeting the opioid epidemic to the equivalent of using a garden hose to fight a wildfire.

Congress is considering more than 30 bills to address what health experts have characterized as an ongoing crisis.

More than 42,000 people died from opioid overdoses in 2016, the deadliest year on record, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Travis County between 2006 and 2016, opioid overdoses nearly doubled, contributing to the deaths of 590 people, health data show.

“America does have a fire when it comes to opioid crises,” Doggett said Wednesday. “What we’re getting this week and next, instead of experienced professional firefighters with a plan to put out that wildfire, we’re being offered a collection of garden hoses. It won’t get the job done.”

Many of the bills were adopted this week under expedited procedures because they were not controversial, meaning they didn’t get a roll call vote. They included things such as creating interagency task forces and advisory committees.

“I am not opposed to these bills,” said Doggett, whose district includes parts of Travis and Bexar counties. “Most of them just don’t do any good.”

A few controversial bills did make the cut, including one adopted Thursday that will set aside as many as 10,000 Section 8 housing vouchers for people recovering from opioid addiction and other substance use disorders.

Opponents of the bill worry the vouchers would be diverted from other needy recipients.

Lawmakers, seeking to prevent the import of synthetic opioids through the U.S. Postal Service, approved a bill that would require international shipments to include electronic tracking data and a list of package contents.

The American Postal Workers Union had opposed the measure, saying it would force the postal service to cut costs in other areas “to the detriment of the American public,” according to a letter penned to congressional representatives.

Congress also approved a bill introduced by Rep. John Katko, R-NY, which will create a new class of controlled substances for various compounds of the drug fentanyl, a strong synthetic opioid that is contributing to the rise in overdose deaths. The bill, if adopted, will allow the attorney general to add other drugs to the new category.

The bills have been rolled into a larger package that will likely be considered by lawmakers next week on a second vote.

Doggett said none of the measures set aside any money for treatment services, which are greatly needed to solve the opioid problem. He said cuts in Medicaid will further reduce the availability of services, particularly in Texas.

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission has said the state desperately needs more medication-assisted treatment programs and struggles to find permanent funding to fight the opioid crisis.

“My feeling is, as too often happens in Congress, this is the appearance of action rather than action,” Doggett said Wednesday. “We need serious responses to a problem that is costly and that is complex.”

Doggett, who sits on the House Ways and Means Committee, had introduced several amendments to the bills that were considered, none of which were approved.

He had hoped to see the U.S. Justice Department join states and municipalities in suing pharmaceutical companies for reimbursements for their part in creating the opioid crisis. Texas and Travis County this year both filed lawsuits seeking reimbursements against drugmakers for misrepresenting the risks of medications like OxyContin.

“If every one of the bills being considered, all 30 of them, are approved, few of those who really need treatment are going to get it as a result of this,” Doggett said. “And none of those responsible for this crisis will be held accountable.”

Doggett also had pushed to reduce costs for the drug naloxone, which reverses the effect of an opioid overdose. The medication has skyrocketed in price in recent years amid the epidemic.

“With the increased demand on these drugs to equip police, emergency medical providers, schools, families and friends, the burden on public programs has become overwhelming,” Doggett wrote to the White House last month. “Access to the drug is literally a matter of life and death.”

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