Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy On Cloture Vote of S.524, the Comprehensive Addiction And Recovery Act

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),
Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee,
On Cloture Vote of S.524, the Comprehensive Addiction And Recovery Act

July 13, 2016

Today, Congress is taking a step forward in how it responds to opioid addiction. By advancing the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), we are leaving behind decades-old misconceptions about how to confront addiction. For too long, Congress relied on punitive measures that only served to push addicts further underground and away from recovery. This legislation treats opioid addiction as an illness, and combats it as we would any other public health issue: through a commitment to evidence based prevention, treatment, and recovery programs.

Yet our commitment today also falls short. This conference report promises critical programming, but it does not provide the resources necessary to support that programming. Given the lack of funding, I worked to direct CARA’s limited resources to benefit communities that have been particularly hard hit by opioid abuse, communities like those in Vermont. But unfortunately CARA lacks sufficient funding to benefit all communities impacted by opioid addiction. As a result, this should be heralded only as a first step. If Congress considers its job done today, we will have failed the countless communities across the country grappling with addiction. And we will have done little to stem the reach of this epidemic.

Republicans have repeatedly blocked efforts to fund the programs authorized by CARA. When the legislation was first considered on the Senate floor, Republicans opposed Senator Shaheen’s amendment that would have provided $600 million in new funding through emergency supplemental appropriations. Through the appropriations process in Committee this year, emergency funds to fight this addiction epidemic were denied. Senate Republicans keep assuring us that there will be a time and a place to include real funding.

Last week’s Conference meeting was such an opportunity. I, along with other Democratic conferees, identified commonsense and bipartisan offsets that would enable us to dedicate almost $1 billion in new resources to put the programs in CARA to work. We told our Republican counterparts we could not sign the Conference Report unless it included meaningful funding. Republicans again voted against funding CARA, and I did not sign the report. But they also made a new promise: at the Conference meeting, Republicans promised to include $525 million in new funding to combat addiction through the appropriations process. I will continue to press—and the American people should demand—that Congress keeps its promises and provides meaningful funding for CARA without partisan, poison-pill offsets.

I will soon again join Senators Murray, Wyden, and Shaheen to introduce legislation to provide $920 million to fund CARA. This new funding could be fully paid for with offsets we proposed to the committee conferees last week, all of which have all received overwhelming bipartisan support. If Congress is serious about combatting the opioid epidemic, there is no excuse to not support this commonsense proposal.

If CARA were funded, it could make an important difference in communities across the country. The bill lays the groundwork for expanding prevention efforts and access to treatment and recovery services. It removes arbitrary restrictions on prescribing Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT), which will allow nurse practitioners and physician assistants in Vermont to treat addiction just as they treat other illnesses. It authorizes a critical public health program I helped create to expand MAT programs. Some Vermonters struggling with addiction have had to wait nearly a year to receive treatment. At the Chittenden Clinic in South Burlington, Vermont, several have died while waiting. Sadly, this story is not unique.

The bill also includes my provision to support our rural communities by increasing access to the overdose-reversal drug naloxone. Rural locations have the highest death rates in the country from opioid poisoning. Getting this drug into more hands will save lives. The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act also recognizes that the over-prescription of opioids is largely responsible for this epidemic, and the legislation includes a provision I strongly support to encourage the National Institutes of Health to intensify research on the effectiveness of opioids in treating chronic pain, and to encourage the development of opioid-alternatives to manage chronic pain.

Two weeks ago, on a beautiful Vermont evening, a standing-room-only crowd filled a conference room at the Green Mountain Technical and Career Center for a community meeting on opioid abuse. The event was organized by Lamoille County Sheriff Roger Marcoux. He is a former DEA agent who has seen the toll that heroin and opioid abuse has exacted on this rural region of my state. Dr. Betsy Perez, a panelist and longtime practitioner at nearby Copley Hospital, surprised many in the crowd when she addressed the opioid issue from a personal, rather than a medical, perspective. She told the heart-wrenching story of her addicted daughter’s journey. Despite many efforts at treatment, her daughter repeatedly relapsed, eventually winding up homeless on the streets of Burlington. Her daughter is now two years into recovery and recently became a mother. The cost of her intensive residential treatment was high, and it drained the doctor’s retirement savings, but she would have it no other way.

Many are not so fortunate. Each day, 129 people die from drug overdoses in our country. I suspect that almost every Vermonter knows someone who has been impacted by addiction. This is not the future we want for our children, for our grandchildren, or for our communities. In Vermont we know what it takes to get ahead of addiction. While I appreciate the attention Congress has given this issue, CARA will only work for Vermont and states across the country if Congress is willing to provide the funding that is necessary to fight this epidemic.

I was proud to help usher CARA through the Senate, and I will support it today. But I am greatly disappointed that Congress has so far refused to treat this public health crisis as seriously as it did the swine flu or Ebola. As Vermonters know too well, lives are at stake here at home and time is of the essence. It is time for Congress to act like it, and fully fund CARA.

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