Senate Judiciary Committee Approves Leahy-Backed Comprehensive Legislation To Combat Opioid & Heroin Abuse

. . . Leahy Successfully Includes Language To Help Rural Communities Obtain Overdose-reversing Drug Naloxone

WASHINGTON (THURSDAY, Feb. 11, 2016) – Legislation approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday to respond to the nation’s opioid crisis now contains important provisions to support rural communities, which Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) successfully fought to include.

The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) provides for a community-based response to heroin and opioid addiction; an approach that Vermont has employed and that Leahy highlighted at a field hearing in Rutland in 2014.  As amended in committee, the bill includes authorization for some important programs that Leahy helped to create, including a grant program to expand access to Medication Assisted Treatment programs, which are plagued by massive waiting lists—and Federal funding to expand state-led anti-heroin task forces. And importantly for Vermont, and at Leahy’s urging, the bill includes specific language to help rural communities obtain the overdose-reversing drug Naloxone.  The bill, of which Leahy is a cosponsor, was originally authored by Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio).

“In recent years, few issues have impacted families in Vermont more than opioid abuse.  This bill represents an important step forward.  For far too long, the knee-jerk legislative response to those who struggled with addiction was strictly punitive,” said Leahy, a former prosecutor. 

Leahy added: “By advancing this legislation today, we are showing a commitment to treating addiction like the public health crisis that it is. We are abandoning decades-old misconceptions and prejudices about how to confront addiction.”

The Committee’s work on Thursday follows up on a hearing the panel held on the opioid crisis last month.  At Leahy’s invitation, Governor Peter Shumlin (D-Vt.) was a featured speaker at the hearing and he spoke about the unique challenges Vermont faces as a rural state in responding to addiction.

Death rates from opioid overdoses have steadily climbed across the country, but there is a real disparity between rural communities and major cities.  Emergency medical services are often limited in rural areas, and statistics show that the more rural a location, the higher the death rate.  That is why Leahy fought so hard to include provisions in the measure specifically for rural communities.

While Leahy applauded the Committee’s bipartisan approval of this comprehensive legislation, he reiterated once again that more resources need to be directed to this national health crisis. He called on the Senate to pass a $600 million emergency spending bill to direct vital resources to combat heroin and opioid addiction.

“We have passed larger emergency supplemental bills to address swine flu and Ebola, and we need to take this challenge just as seriously,” Leahy said.

Leahy helped to establish the Anti-Heroin Task Force to combat the growing problem in communities across Vermont and the nation.  The Vermont Drug Task Force received $1.4 million from the first round of grants for this program in September 2015, resulting in the addition of five troopers to focus on heroin trafficking.  The program will receive $7 million in funding in FY16. 

Results and a webcast of Thursday’s executive business meeting can be found online.

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