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News / Nation & World

Senate easily passes sweeping opioid legislation

Lawmakers approve bill 99-1, sending it to president’s desk

By Colby Itkowitz, The Washington Post
Published: October 3, 2018, 9:51pm

WASHINGTON — The Senate passed the final version of a sweeping opioid package Wednesday afternoon and will send it to the White House just in time for lawmakers to campaign on the issue before the November midterm elections.

The vote was 99 to 1, with Utah Sen. Mike Lee, R, opposing it.

The bill unites dozens of smaller proposals sponsored by hundreds of lawmakers, many of whom face tough re-election fights. It creates, expands and reauthorizes programs and policies across almost every federal agency, aiming to address different aspects of the opioid epidemic, including prevention, treatment and recovery.

It is one of Congress’ most significant legislative achievements this year, a rare bipartisan response to a growing public health crisis that resulted in 72,000 drug-overdose deaths last year. It marks a moment of bipartisan accomplishment at an especially rancorous time on Capitol Hill as senators debate Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who sounded the alarm on opioid addiction four years ago, is credited with the slice of the bill that could have the greatest effect. It will require the U.S. Postal Service to screen packages for fentanyl shipped from overseas, mainly China. Synthetic opioids that are difficult to detect are increasingly being found in pills and heroin and are responsible for an increase in overdose deaths.

“I will say getting that passed, to me, is just common sense. I think it’s overdue. I’m disappointed it took us this long,” Portman said in a floor speech Tuesday.

On Wednesday, just before the vote, he called it a, “glimmer of hope.”

The bill’s passage comes a year after President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a national emergency. The Senate vote is the last step before he signs the measure into law. The House passed it 393 to 8 last week.

Public-health advocates laud the bill’s increased attention to treatment, which they say is the key component to overcoming addiction. The legislation would create a grant program for comprehensive recovery centers that include housing and job training, as well as mental and physical health care. It would increase access to medication-assisted treatment that helps people with substance abuse disorders safely wean themselves.

Another major aspect of the bill is the change to a decades-old arcane rule that prohibited Medicaid from covering patients with substance abuse disorders who were receiving treatment in a mental health facility with more than 16 beds. The bill lifts that rule to allow for 30 days of residential treatment coverage.