More than a month after the Senate acted on legislation to reduce heroin deaths, the House is trying to figure out how to deal with the election-year issue. Heroin and opioid painkiller abuse is a growing, deadly problem that has become a top political issue in many states. More than 47,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2014 in cities and rural areas alike, more than double the death rate in 2000.
The Senate last month passed a bill 94-1 that would create grants to bolster state and local programs aimed at reducing overdose deaths. At a news conference Thursday, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers pushed for a package of bills including similar grants and legislation to reduce over-prescribing and improve treatment. House committees already are considering the bills, and GOP leaders have said they want to vote on a package in May. But it still hasn’t been decided exactly what the package will look like.
Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said this week that the House is “right on track” for getting the legislation done. Speaker Paul Ryan has said the chamber will move on the issue soon but has not given a timeline.
“Our goal is to go to conference with the Senate and get a bill to the president’s desk,” Ryan said Thursday.
In both chambers, Republican lawmakers facing tough re-election bids in states most affected by drug abuse have led efforts to get the legislation passed. Rep. Frank Guinta, vulnerable in his home state of New Hampshire, is pushing the legislation with his state Democratic colleague, Rep. Annie Kuster. New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, also Republicans in tough races, pushed for the Senate bill.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said the drug problem has grown most significantly in the Northeast, Midwest and South. West Virginia, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Kentucky and Ohio had the highest death rates from drug overdoses in 2014. At the news conference, Guinta said House committees still are deciding which bills will be part of the package and how much the legislation will cost. “That could take some additional time,” Guinta said.
Guinta, Kuster and other lawmakers have asked House colleagues in charge of spending for more than $800 million for the efforts. The Senate bill would provide no new money for the grants; Republicans said previously approved money could be used and more could be provided when Congress writes next year’s spending bills.
Senate Democrats had attempted to add $600 million to the legislation, but that effort was rejected. In a letter expressing support for the bill’s grants, White House officials had said that unless Congress provides extra money, the bill “would do little to address the epidemic” of drug abuse.
Still, the legislation won wide support from senators of both parties. That bill includes money to train emergency workers to treat drug abusers, create treatment programs that would be alternatives to imprisonment and finance recovery programs at schools and nonprofit groups. There would be grants for helping veterans and pregnant offenders, and funds for using drugs like naloxone that can reverse opiate overdoses and for local law enforcement efforts.
Senators are pushing the House to move more quickly. Portman says the House should pass the Senate bill and move on the rest of their bills separately. “It’s urgent,” Portman said on the Senate floor Thursday. “There is a crisis. There’s no time to waste.”
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