A morning session featuring four Democratic and two Republican members of Congress sounded a hopeful tone of bipartisanship at the National Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit in Atlanta on Tuesday. U.S. House and Senate members talked about how the indiscriminate nature of the opioid scourge has created new allies on Capitol Hill and is reshaping attitudes about drugs within the federal bureaucracy.
“On this issue, we maintain strong bipartisan teams and partnerships,” said U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.). She and one of her fellow session presenters, U.S. Rep. Harold “Hal” Rogers (R-Ky.), might strike profiles as different as clam chowder is from Southern barbecue, but in the House they are co-sponsoring legislation to establish a financial incentive encouraging clinical care professionals to pursue a career in treating addictions.
Rogers, who has been instrumental in the summit's creation and growth, credited community advocates with elevating the addiction issue in Washington and easing the path for initiatives such as a newly adopted omnibus federal spending bill that bolsters enforcement, treatment and research efforts.
He and Clark explained that the bill they are sponsoring, the Substance Use Disorder Workforce Loan Repayment Act, would offer up to $250,000 in student loan repayment to direct-care professionals (from physicians to recovery coaches) who committed to perform full-time work in a high-need area for six years. High-need communities would be defined as those with a shortage of behavioral health professionals or a high prevalence of drug overdose deaths.
The session's other presenters were U.S. Sens. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Reps. Earl “Buddy” Carter (R.-Ga., and the only pharmacist serving in Congress) and William Lacy Clay Jr. (D-Mo.). All sounded a call for targeted spending to fight the opioid epidemic, but also spending that reflects what Hassan called the “all hands on deck” approach needed to manage the crisis.
Arguably the most audible approval from the audience came with the impassioned remarks of Markey, who talked of fentanyl's fatal impact on too many of his state's residents and criticized the notion that a return to a “war on drugs” mentality would solve many of these problems. “Families don't need more toughness—they need more treatment,” Markey said.
He prodded the Trump administration to make permanent the declaration of the opioid problem as a public health emergency. He also threw a jab at Washington's relatve lack of emphasis on promoting technological solutions such as devices that can detect the presence of fentanyl at the border.
“Let's use 21st century technology and not a 17th century wall,” Markey said.
The National Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit is the largest national collaboration of professionals from local, state, and federal agencies, business, academia, clinicians, treatment providers, counselors, educators, state and national leaders, and advocates impacted by prescription drug abuse and heroin use.