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Senate panel unveils bipartisan new bill to combat opioid epidemic

The ambitious new measure includes 40 different proposals intended to drastically expand the ability of government agencies to address the ongoing crisis.
Image: A special projects director with the Baltimore City Health Department reaches for a package of Narcan nasal spray
A new Senate measure is aimed at giving government officials fresh tools to fight the opioid addiction epidemic.Patrick Semansky / AP

WASHINGTON — A Senate panel on Tuesday introduced a comprehensive congressional plan in response to the growing opioid addiction epidemic.

The bipartisan bill comes as the death toll from prescription opioid addiction continues to skyrocket. In 2016, over 42,200 Americans died from an opioids overdose, according to the latest CDC data — five times higher than in 1999.

The epidemic has affected every state in the country, making the issue a top priority on both sides of the aisle.

Congress has previously addressed the crisis by giving agencies more funding to research solutions and distribute grants, such as the $3.3 billion that was included in the massive omnibus spending bill last month. But critics said that interagency reform, not just funding, was necessary for long-term results.

The ambitious new measure, now under consideration in the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, includes 40 bipartisan proposals intended to drastically expand the ability of multiple government agencies to address the ongoing crisis.

Provisions in the bill would encourage further research at the National Institutes of Health to develop nonaddictive painkillers, urge the Food and Drug Administration to recommend certain limits on the number of opioids prescribed to a patient, and call on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to collect more data about overdoses, which officials can then use to more effectively combat the epidemic.

The legislation also includes Jessie’s Law, a proposal that would give doctors greater access to medical records documenting a patient’s addiction history.

The White House last month released the outlines of its own three-pronged approach to combating the epidemic, which would prioritize decreasing opioid overprescription, expanding access to treatment and curbing the supply of illegal drugs entering the country from elsewhere. The proposal drew controversy over President Donald Trump's suggestion that some drug dealers be subject to the death penalty.

Legislation to aid law enforcement efforts to combat the epidemic fall under the jurisdiction of the Senate Judiciary Committee, although the measure introduced Tuesday does outline requirements for the FDA and Custom Border Patrol to more effectively detect and seize illegal drugs, like fentanyl, that cross U.S. borders.

The panel is aiming to move the bill through the committee by next week and send it to the full Senate for consideration. Their House counterparts are planning to move forward on similar proposals by Memorial Day.