MARY REICHARD, HOST: Well, Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill actually do agree on some things. One is that the opioid crisis is now a leading cause of death in this country, and that it demands immediate attention.
By one estimate, opioid overdoses claim the lives of 115 Americans every day.
NICK EICHER, HOST: This is an election year, so that usually means gridlock on important legislation. But not when it comes to trying to stem the tide of opioid deaths.
By month’s end, the House will have voted on as many as 70 separate bills in June alone to address the problem. Seems everybody wants to be seen doing something.
WORLD Radio’s Jim Henry has our story.
JIM HENRY, REPORTER: A dozen or so House lawmakers last week briefed reporters on legislative action they’re taking in June to curb opioid addiction and deaths.
Each held up a picture of a constituent. Here’s Cathy McMorris Rodgers—
RODGERS: This is Kristen. She’s from eastern Washington. She’s struggled with an opioid addiction for the last eight years. It has led to a heroin addiction, which has led to her losing her kids’ custody and numerous jobs. Her addiction has torn her family apart.
Rodgers is locked in a tight race to keep her seat against Democrat challenger Lisa Brown— former chancellor at Washington State University-Spokane.
Many of Rodgers’ Republican colleagues on the stage face tough reelection battles as well.
Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said narrowly crafted opioid bills will make up much of House business in June.
MCCARTHY: We are spending this week and next week passing more than 70 bills dealing with this addiction. This is destroying the fiber of this nation and we should battle it in the seriousness of what it is. America deserves better, and families need to be protected.
Last week alone the House passed more than 30 opioid bills—ranging from expanded treatment access to new enforcement authority for the Federal Drug Administration.
Democrats complained that the piecemeal approach is an inefficient use of lawmakers’ time.
Some of the bills do have bipartisan support— so it’s difficult to see how much separation they will give Republicans from their Democratic challengers in November.
And will these bills actually help solve the problem? Former Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn—an MD— isn’t so sure. He’s now with the Manhattan Institute and has been watching the parade of election year opioid bills in the House.
COBURN: It doesn’t surprise me at all. I’m a typical political cynic. You know, where were you when we needed to be doing oversight hearings on DEA? Where were you in your state when this first started happening and say, ‘Why aren’t we cracking down on the doctors that are writing these prescriptions to begin with?
The federal Drug Enforcement Agency determines how many opioid pills can be manufactured in the U.S. and has faced criticism for allowing too many.
But MD Sally Satel—with the American Enterprise Institute—says it’s unfair to characterize doctors and pharmaceutical companies as the bad guys.
SATEL: At this point, actually, prescription pills like Vicodin and Percocet, those are not actually driving the epidemic anymore. It’s really been taken over by illicit drugs, and fentanyl is particularly dangerous, because it’s 50 times the potency of heroin.
Fentanyl is a largely illegal, synthetic opioid. A recent study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that in 2016— fentanyl-related overdose deaths surpassed those of prescription painkillers. Heroin wasn’t far behind. Combined, the three accounted for 51,000 deaths.
Some observers are concerned that lawmakers—in their rush to pass legislation—will only exacerbate the problem. But they may not have much to worry about.
While a few of the 70 House bills might get a vote in the Senate—it’s more likely the vast majority will never see the light of day there, making this month’s votes nothing more than political theater.
Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Jim Henry.