Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy Conference on S. 524, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),
Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee,
Conference on S. 524, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016

July 6, 2016

The ravages of opioid addiction have reached every corner of the country. But this epidemic has struck my home state of Vermont like nothing I have seen before. From testimony I received at Senate Judiciary Committee field hearings to conversations around kitchen tables across the state, I have heard how this addiction has destroyed lives, torn apart families, and overwhelmed communities. Vermont and areas across the country are desperate for help. That is why we are here today—to help these communities in need.

I was proud to help usher the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act—or CARA—through the Senate. For far too long, the knee-jerk legislative response to those who struggled with addiction was strictly punitive: we embraced flawed policies that relied on mandatory minimums. We ignored effective treatments, and we pushed addicts further underground. This response was terribly misguided. The Senate CARA legislation abandons these decades-old misconceptions. This Senate bill was the product of years of input from experts in the fields of addiction, mental health, and criminal justice. The Senate bill combats addiction as we would any other disease—through evidence-based prevention, treatment, and recovery programs. The Senate also overwhelmingly voted to instruct conferees to maintain the structure of the Senate bill, support and address the unique needs of rural communities, provide safer pain management services to our nation’s veterans, and remove outdated restrictions on medication assisted treatments.

Unfortunately, the draft Conference Report leaves behind many of these improvements. For programs administered by the Attorney General, the Conference Report strips out the evidence-based strategies and best practices. It replaces the carefully developed structure of the Senate CARA legislation with a skeleton block grant. Inexplicably, the Report places important programs in jeopardy, such as the Anti-Heroin Task Force that I helped to create and worked to include in the Senate CARA bill. The Report also places funding for drug courts and alternatives to incarceration at risk. And it fails to adequately expand provider rights to prescribe lifesaving treatments in areas where patients are currently being turned away.

As drafted, the Conference Report nonetheless represents a symbolic step forward in terms of how Congress confronts addiction. But communities that have been devastated by addiction need more than just symbolism. They need resources. As CARA was considered on the Senate floor, Republicans blocked Senator Shaheen’s amendment that would have provided new funding to combat opioid abuse through emergency supplemental appropriations. We heard assurances from Senate Republicans that there would be a time and a place to include real funding. I believe that time is now.

We have a solution for how to fully fund CARA. We have identified commonsense offsets that would enable us to dedicate almost $1 billion in new resources to put the programs in CARA to work. This should not be a partisan issue; all of these offsets have received strong bipartisan support. The Conference Report before us is not perfect, but only if it is supported with the resources needed to tackle this crisis will I sign it.

Each day 129 people die from drug overdoses in our country. I suspect that every one of us in this room knows someone who has been impacted. We now have an opportunity to do something about it. Opioid addiction is an urgent public health crisis. It is time we treat it like one and commit the federal resources necessary to fight it.

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