June 28, 2018

Bipartisan bill addresses opioid concerns

Every 25 minutes, a baby is born suffering from withdrawal because the mother is grappling with addiction.

These children are heartbreaking victims of an opioid crisis that has taken brutal hold of communities across the country. Rhode Island hospitals, like Women & Infants in Providence, saw the number of babies born into opioid withdrawal nearly triple between 2006 and 2015. That’s why one of the key provisions of my new bill to address this public health crisis would increase support for these newborns, and for pregnant and postpartum women seeking addiction treatment.

At a time when few bills could gather enough bipartisan momentum to become law, Sen. Rob Portman (ROhio) and I got to work on the original Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act to combat the opioid epidemic. The expertise of Rhode Island recovery advocates, like the late Jim Gillen of Anchor Recovery, was instrumental in helping us focus the original Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act on real needs at the front lines of the epidemic. It passed both houses of Congress by overwhelming margins and was signed by President Barack Obama in 2016; increased funding followed.

Portman and I teamed up again now on “CARA 2.0” to provide better infant care, to improve prescription drug monitoring and prescribing practices and to provide more support for people in long-term recovery. We can’t forget how this epidemic began in the first place. Our bill increases civil and criminal penalties for opioid manufacturers that negligently allow addictive pills to get into the wrong hands. Pharmaceutical companies have not met their responsibility to keep unnecessary pills off the market, and my legislation would hold drug manufacturers accountable.

It is heartening that there is enormous bipartisan support in Congress for preventing and treating opioid addiction. Recently, Congress approved $3.3 billion more to address the crisis, including significant money for the ambitious programs the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act created. Our new legislation also has received strong support from colleagues across the political spectrum.

There are glimmers of hope that suggest Rhode Island is starting to turn the tide on this crisis. I hosted new U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams for a visit to Rhode Island in January, and he was impressed by the approach our state has taken. Gov. Gina Raimondo and members of her cabinet have shown great leadership. Police departments and emergency rooms have stepped up. Specialists like Michelle Harter, an addiction assistance coordinator embedded in the Burrillville Police Department, are working with law enforcement to promote recovery in towns across the state.

We have a dedicated, compassionate recovery community, including the teams at CODAC, The Providence Center and Phoenix House. With all these interrelated efforts, the state saw an 8 percent decrease in opioid overdose deaths in the first eight months of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016.

We need a well-funded and comprehensive approach to preventing addiction and supporting those on the long, noble path of recovery. Between the existing law, the added money and our new bill, we are moving in the right direction in the way we treat addiction in Rhode Island and across the country.

By: Sheldon Whitehouse