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Narrow Focus on Opioid Crisis Leads to More Law Enforcement & Lack of Funding

Over the past few months, many members of Congress who find themselves in tight Congressional races have spent a great deal of time and effort rallying behind their legislative response to the opioid crisis in an attempt to influence voters in the Fall elections. Unfortunately, the zeal with which these vulnerable members of Congress have been promoting a recently passed House bill and the likely impact of the contents of the bill itself are not in sync, as it avoids addressing the glaring funding needs that must be met if any substantial progress is to be made on the issue.

Last week, the House of Representatives passed the bipartisan SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act (H.R. 6), which collects the chamber’s meek opioid response to send to the Senate in one comprehensive package. As reported earlier this month, the legislative aims are narrowly focused on limiting the supply of opioids through prescription monitoring, expansion of SUD treatment, innovations on non-addictive pain treatments, and harsher criminalization of illicit drugs like fentanyl.

Following the passage of the bill, Politico reporter Adam Cancryn wrote a piece looking at a small collection of health care and pharmaceutical companies that spent millions lobbying Congress this year and who would bring in a windfall if H.R. 6 becomes law. Drug companies who sell medications for SUDs or chronic pain have spent hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars, aiming to get their slice of the pie since Congress passed the Bipartisan Budget Deal in late March, which authorized $6 billion over two years toward fighting the opioid crisis.

At present, only one in ten patients who need treatment receive it, and a report from the Administration’s opioid commission identified a lack of willing providers as one the main barriers. Congress needs to do more to influence providers to treat people who use drugs – coming from criminalized communities means they face stigma, discrimination, and denial of services in health care and beyond. Even after the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016 (S. 524 (114)) expanded the limits on buprenorphine-prescribing, only a fraction of the workforce got on board.

Meanwhile, ease of access to opioid crisis-related data by law enforcement is leading to increased prosecutions and harsher criminal sentencing among people who use drugs and health care providers. Prescription monitoring programs have been touted for their role in detecting pill mills, which is a subsiding problem, but they are being over-used by investigators in some states.<span style="mso-ascii-font-family:Calibri;mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri;mso-bidi-font-family: Calibri"> In Oklahoma – where authorities searched the state's database 10 times more often than investigators in Texas – the queries result in criminal charges against 7 to 10 providers a year, and investigations of 50 to 100 patients suspected of doctor shopping, forging prescriptions, or street sales. Worse, when someone dies of an overdose, police are increasingly arresting their friends and families on charges relating to murder.

As neither chamber of Congress has committed itself to addressing the opioid crisis as the public health emergency that it is, criminalization of drug use will continue to mire the response.

Posted By: AIDS United, Policy Department - Friday, June 29, 2018

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