ASHINGTON — The first major legislation to address the growing crisis of opioid addiction is on its way to President Obama’s desk, after the Senate approved the package in a strong bipartisan vote on Wednesday.
In a show of the widespread agreement for action, 92 senators voted for the bill after it received more than 400 votes in the House last week.
The legislation, called the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, is a compilation of measures passed by the House and Senate in recent weeks to try to fight the epidemic of addiction to painkillers, which is now killing nearly 30,000 people annually in the United States.
“We can begin to turn the tide on this issue,” Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, who helped write the bill, said on the Senate floor before the vote.
“I know it can be very discouraging, the scope of this problem,” he said. But once the bill is signed into law, “in many more of our communities, we’ll have more resources, we’ll have more treatment, we’ll have more recovery and we’ll have more hope.”
The unresolved question is funding. Some congressional Democrats were reluctant to approve the bill because it does not actually provide money for its programs, though they ultimately voted for it en masse. The White House also expressed reservations about the lack of funding, noting that the bill doesn’t provide the $1.1 billion President Obama requested to address the crisis.
In a statement Wednesday night, however, the White House said Obama will sign the bill “because some action is better than none” — but added that “he won’t stop fighting to secure the resources this public health crisis demands.”
Republicans have said that they will provide funding to pay for the programs authorized in the legislation through separate appropriations bills.
The legislation would create a $100 million-per-year grant program within the US Department of Justice to support states in fighting opioid addiction. Programs that offer an alternative to jail time, overdose training for first responders, and prescription drug-monitoring programs are some of the efforts that could be funded.
Other provisions include allowing nurse practitioners and physician assistants to administer medication-assisted treatment, undertaking awareness campaigns to try to deter opioid abuse, and requiring the US Department of Health and Human Services to set up a task force on pain management.
“While more work is needed, and that work must include a dramatic expansion of funding, CARA will help thousands by providing wider access to anti-overdose medication, and potentially help more young people in recovery gain access to higher education and expand the number and reach of recovery community organizations across the country,” the group Facing Addiction said in a statement.
House appropriators have already proposed spending nearly $600 million to stop and treat opioid addiction next year. Advocates plan to keep pressing lawmakers to fulfill that end of the deal.
Recovery groups will be “pushing for more funding. That’s the key ask for us,” Greg Williams, the cofounder of Facing Addiction, told STAT last month. Portman said in his floor speech that he would work to make sure the funding is provided.
The problem isn’t going to go away, and opioids could be a regular subject on the campaign trail. But politics aside, lawmakers who worked on the package said that its passage in a contentious election year is proof of the issue’s urgency.
“Partisanship wasn’t even a thought,” said Republican Representative Frank Guinta of New Hampshire, who traveled his own journey on the issue, a former tough-on-crime mayor who has become an advocate of treatment. “Everybody was laser-focused on solving the problem.”