U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said recent passage of 58 bills by the House is a record-setting legislative package to address the opioid epidemic that he describes as a “killer on a rampage.”
Walden, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where the bills originated, said the 396-14 vote on June 22 in favor of the package was the culmination of almost 10 years of bipartisan work.
One of the provisions in the package directs the National Institutes of Health to develop nonaddictive painkillers. Another seeks to change how prescription pills are distributed to reduce the potential for abuse.
The legislation also gives the Border Patrol and U.S. Postal Service more tools to crack down on those who sell or traffic synthetic drugs, and to identify and stop these drugs from entering the United States.
“This is the single largest effort in recent history to address an epidemic that is sending 1,000 people to emergency rooms every day with an overdose,” said Walden.
The Center for Disease Control reports that 115 people die of overdose every day and 40 percent of those deaths involve prescription drugs.
Walden said as many Oregonians die from opioid overdose as car accidents each year. Some of the addicted are teens who suffered a sports injury and were prescribed opioids to take away pain during recovery.
“Once they become addicted, they often turn to heroin when they can’t get another prescription or find out they can get that drug at half the cost,” said Walden.
Opioids are a class of drugs that include heroin as well as the prescription pain relievers Oxycodone, Hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, fentanyl and others.
Fentanyl is especially deadly, said Walden, because it is a synthetic opioid that can be 100 times stronger than morphine. A person who uses this drug and is not accustomed to taking opiates can overdose due to its strength.
When fentanyl is combined with another drug that suppresses breathing, such as alcohol or benzodiazepines, the combination can cause death.
In a June interview with the Chronicle, Walden’s Democratic challenger for the Second Congressional District seat, Jamie McLeod-Skinner, criticized him for not engaging in the battle against opioids sooner.
She suggested that Walden was using the issue as a safe campaign platform instead of engaging in debate on hot button issues, such as immigration reform and a fix to the nation’s health care crisis.
Walden, who has held his seat since 1998, said his opponent might not be aware of his ongoing efforts to address prevention and addiction issues because she was residing in California until several years ago.
He said the movement to address the growing crisis of opioid addiction picked up steam in the Republican controlled House and Senate several years ago as grim facts emerged about the scope of the problem.
At that time, he said the White House was held by President Barack Obama, who did not make battling opioid addiction as much of a priority as President Donald Trump, who declared it a national crisis.
At one point, Walden said the Drug Enforcement Administration, made up largely of Obama appointees, refused to provide information requested by his committee about why the small community of Kermit, W. VA., with a population of 392, received nine million opioid pills in two years.
In addition, a pharmacy in Oceana, W. Va., received 600 times as many Oxycodone pills as another pharmacy just eight blocks away between 2006 and 2016.
“Our requests for data from the DEA are met with delay, excuses and, frankly, inadequate response. People are dying. Lives and families are ruined,” said Walden to Neil Doherty, DEA’s deputy assistant administrator, in the fall of 2017, almost a year after the information was requested.
Despite these obstacles, Walden said bipartisan efforts continued in the House to get programs in place to address the problem.
He held three roundtables in 2015 on the opioid crisis and disease prevention around the district.
He also hosted mental health and opioid roundtables in six Oregon cities during 2016 and 2017.
In addition to meeting with law enforcement officials, treatment providers and medical professionals, Walden heard from families affected by drug addiction.
“We had to learn from people on the front lines of this fight about what was working and what still needed to be done,” he said.
In 2016, Walden supported and advocated for passage of the Addiction and Recovery Act and passage of 21st Century Cures law.
Trump demanded action from Congress after taking office in 2017, said Walden, so GOP leaders in the House responded with legislation that was supported by most of their Democratic colleagues.
As a result, Walden said the Substance Use-Disorder Prevention that Promotes Opioids Recovery and Treatment for Patients and Communities Act was approved last month by a strong margin and is now in the Senate for consideration.
Walden is engaged in discussions with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and others to get the legislation to a floor vote before the August break.
“Although I’d have liked to see something that addresses such an enormous problem get put in place much sooner, it takes time to work through a complex set of issues, especially when the president (Obama) and Congress are from different political parties,” he said.
“However, we managed to find bipartisan agreement in enough areas to get some programs in place under President Obama — and we now have President Trump’s full support to get programs in place to address the epidemic. I feel like all this hard work just put us in a place to move forward.”
He said Oregon would receive $13 million of the $3 billion in funding tied to the legislative package that would be awarded in grants to help communities set up treatment and education programs to fight addiction.
Some of the overall funding would also be used for research to find better ways to manage chronicle pain so that less opioids are prescribed.
That is no small feat, said Walden, given that 27 million Americans suffer from some type of chronic pain.
In the past, he said people were told opioids were not widely addictive and they were freely prescribed, which contributed to overuse.
“We need a change of culture on pain management,” he said.