Oregon Rep. Greg Walden’s sweeping bill to combat the nation’s opioid crisis is now law. President Donald Trump signed the 660-page SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act at a ceremony Wednesday at the White House.
“Seldom can you say that a piece of legislation will save lives,” Walden said. “This will save lives.”
The Republican from Hood River introduced the bill in June. The bill passed with wide bipartisan support in the House and Senate. During a phone interview Wednesday before the signing, Walden said the bill builds on work Congress did in 2015 and 2016 that “basically peeled the layers back on the problem” to show how widespread opioid addiction had become. Walden conducted 10-12 roundtable discussions in his district to hear from treatment providers, law enforcement and addicts. He said parents told heartrending stories of their children becoming addicts, and addicts themselves recounted the difficulties of seeking treatment.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse reported the U.S. in 2017 had 72,000 drug overdose deaths, and 49,000 were due to opioids. According to data from the Oregon Health Authority, the state had 168 opioid related deaths in 2017, with 29 of those in the 2nd Congressional District, including nine in Deschutes County and one each in Umatilla, Union and Morrow counties. The act pumps $17 million into Oregon for drug treatment, much of that going to the Oregon Health Authority, but some in targeted grants to local treatment centers, including the Columbia River Community Health Services in Boardman, which received $285,000 to help addicts in Umatilla and Morrow counties.
Walden said the law includes safeguards to ensure the funds do what the law intends. The act allows for reauthorization of the grants every two years, he said, providing time to determine whether programs are working.
“We’ll be keeping a close eye on that as well,” he said.
The crisis, to some degree, is a monster of our own making, he said. People for years obtained drugs to treat pain, even the kinds of aches that are part of normal human experience.
“We went so far down that path of alleviating pain, so now we’re backing up and saying what else works here,” he said.
The bill incentivizes drug take-backs and non-pharmacological treatments, he said, such as yoga and message, which can help people deal with pain.
Walden, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is seeking his 11th term representing the 2nd Congressional District in the U.S. House. The president’s signing came less than two weeks before election night. His Democrat opponent, Jamie McLeod-Skinner, issued a statement criticizing the bill for not doing more.
“What this bill does, in the name of getting something signed in time for photo ops for this midterm election, is address a collection of second-tier issues,” McLeod-Skinner said. “It does not address the fundamentals that are needed to truly impact the opioid epidemic. Moreover, it does not guarantee the long-term funding that this crisis requires.”
Walden said the bill started with a focus on opioid addiction treatment, but Illinois Rep. Bobby Rush, Democrat and former Black Panther, told him it was good to see legislation to help addicts. But it would have been nice to recognize African-Americans needed that help when crack cocaine ravaged their families.
“I said, ‘Bobby, you’re right,’” Walden recalled, “and we enacted an addendum to include crack cocaine and opioids.”
Walden said he later learned in Madras the community was not seeing the opioid problem, but still dealing with methamphetamine. Further work revised the bill to include treatment for any substance and accompanying mental health problems. Walden said the drug affecting one part of the country may not be a problem elsewhere.
He also said the act closes gaps in medical coverage. Juveniles would lose Medicaid if they crossed state lines or ended up incarcerated, he said, then have to reapply.
“We fixed that in this bill,” he said.