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House committee to consider slew of bills to counter opioid crisis

Opioids Crisis
Posters comparing lethal amounts of heroin, fentanyl, and carfentanil, are on display during a news conference about the dangers of fentanyl.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee unveiled 25 different pieces of legislation that will be considered next week as part of a massive bill battling the opioid crisis that the lower chamber hopes to pass by Memorial Day.

The focus of the package next week will be on addressing public health measures and treatment programs, and will take place over a two-day hearing March 21 and 22. Another hearing at the end of February centered on law enforcement, and a third hearing that is yet to be announced will focus on health insurance coverage.

House members have not yet coalesced behind a funding amount to couple with their policy changes. The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act passed in 2016 funded $1 billion in opioid-related efforts and a spending bill from February allocated another $6 billion.

"Some of these policies may have money associated with them," a committee aide said during a phone call with reporters Wednesday, speaking about the legislation up for consideration. "We want to have the policy first and let the policy dictate the resource."

The policies up for consideration that are Republican-led include bills aimed at sharing health information with different medical providers; allowing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to work with communities to reduce the spread of needle-sharing infections, such as HIV; creating recovery centers where people with addictions would receive medications to help stave off the pangs of withdrawal; and requiring medical facilities that apply for government funds to demonstrate that their programs work.

One bill would dictate how emergency departments should discharge patients who came to the hospital after an overdose, specifying that they receive a dose of naloxone, an overdose-reversal drug, and that they are connected with peer support groups and treatment referrals.

Several bills led by members of each party specifically address the role of the Food and Drug Administration. They include working with medical providers to safely send back opioid medications that are unused, allowing medications to be reviewed faster, allowing FDA to more easily intercept illegal products, as well as giving the agency more authority.

Under the proposals the FDA would be able to more strongly consider a drug's potential for abuse when they are being reviewed and to continue to more aggressively review drugs after they hit the market.

"It has become pretty clear to us that FDA could use additional resources in that space," a committee aide said about increasing funding for the agency.

Democratic-led bills would allow the National Institutes of Health to conduct more research on less-addictive medications to assuage pain and would offer tuition reimbursement to healthcare providers such as doctors and nurses who go into the addiction field. One bill would require the surgeon general to release a report about opioid use among teens, and another would allow more medical providers to prescribe drugs for the treatment for addiction.

“Collectively, these bipartisan bills have the potential to make a number of meaningful reforms to combat the opioid crisis," Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, chairman of the health subcommittee, said in a statement. "I look forward to a robust discussion about these proposals and working to fine tune them.”

Members of Congress have said addressing the opioid epidemic, a public health issue that resulted in more than 42,000 overdose deaths in 2016 from drugs like heroin, fentanyl and prescription painkillers, is a top priority. The White House has also taken on the platform and made changes at the administrative level that have included asking a drugmaker to remove its prescription painkiller from the market and green-lighting a drug to treat withdrawal symptoms.

The Senate has also been holding its own set of hearings about the issue and House committee aides say they have been having conversations with the upper chamber as they continue to craft legislation.