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March 17, 2021

House reshapes approach to mental health and addiction

Credit: Roll Call, Sandhya Raman

House lawmakers are restructuring their bipartisan task forces dedicated to combating the drug epidemic and expect the chamber to consider behavioral health legislation this year, members told CQ Roll Call.

The push is spearheaded by four lawmakers in an effort to broaden the scope of legislative efforts beyond opioids to include all forms of addiction and mental health.

Over 86,000 individuals died from drug overdoses in the 12-month period ending in July 2020, the highest ever recorded in a year, according to preliminary Centers for Disease Control data. A separate American Medical Association brief found that over 40 states reported increases in opioid-related deaths during the pandemic.

At the same time, CDC data has shown sharp increases in individuals experiencing mental health symptoms. Local data has shown spikes in suicides, and children’s advocates worry that the pandemic will have lasting effects on kids’ mental and social health.

House lawmakers are pivoting to a more holistic approach to behavioral health and addiction policy. The newly formed Bipartisan Addiction and Mental Health Task Force will be led by Reps. Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H., Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., David Trone, D-Md., and Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash.

“I definitely expect that we will be working with our leadership both on the [Energy and Commerce] committee and House leadership to have another round of bills,” said Kuster.

Kuster said Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer had indicated legislation could move in September. A senior Democratic aide said that while there are no calendar announcements yet, leadership supports prioritizing the efforts during the 117th Congress.

Trone said Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Hoyer “are very, very excited and understand completely what’s happening. We’ve talked about it extensively.”

“We’re going to get extremely good support from leadership,” he said, noting he also had encouraging conversations with House Appropriations Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and House Energy and Commerce Committee leaders.

Trone said he expects “hearings that kind of highlight what has happened with COVID and what is the next emergency,” and called Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., and ranking member Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., “excellent supporters.”

Trone said he also spoke with Office of National Drug Control Policy acting Director Regina LaBelle.

Bipartisan efforts

This new task force springs from two former groups focused on bipartisan substance use legislation.

In 2015, Kuster and then-Rep. Frank Guinta, a New Hampshire Republican, launched the Bipartisan Heroin Task Force that later rebranded as the Bipartisan Opioid Task Force. Kuster and Fitzpatrick were co-chairs of the group, which has had over 100 members.

And in 2019, Trone launched the Freshmen Working Group on Addiction, with over 60 members from both parties.

“We just wanted to merge together to expand our reach to increase our influence, to broaden our voice, so that we can actually get, from a legislative side, things across the finish line and, from an appropriation side, a stronger push to get additional resources to state and local governments with regard to this,” said Fitzpatrick.

Kuster, Fitzpatrick and Trone joined forces with Herrera Beutler, seeking her West Coast perspective. Methamphetamine is linked to more deaths in many Western states, while synthetic opioids remain a larger driver of overdose deaths on the East Coast.

Fitzpatrick and Herrera Beutler are also Republican members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, which focuses on finding bipartisan policy solutions.

The co-chairs’ first action will be to introduce a resolution that would designate September as National Recovery Month. The former Bipartisan Opioid Task Force released an agenda of bills each session, and Kuster says the new group’s agenda will be “coming out shortly.”

“In the next couple of months, we’ll come right out with it,” said Kuster, pointing to other bipartisan successes such as a 2016 medical research law that included resources for treatment and prevention of mental illness and addiction.

Congress has passed multiple wide-ranging laws in recent years to fund prevention and expand treatment of substance use and mental health disorders. Fitzpatrick said the task force intends to meet with the president and vice president once the group has its agenda.

“What we want to do is to have House leadership dedicate an entire week on the legislative account calendar to addiction and mental health legislation,” he said, which has been done in the past for other topics. The co-chairs have not targeted a specific time for that week.

Personal motivations

Each of the co-chairs highlighted different issues to CQ Roll Call, as they begin assembling an agenda that could serve as the blueprint for a larger legislative package in the coming months.

Trone, who joined Congress in 2019, was inspired to focus on the broader issue after his nephew died of a fentanyl overdose at just 24 years old. Trone is especially interested in addiction issues, and the intersection of mental health and criminal justice.

Navigating the “trenches” of addiction to help his nephew with halfway houses, employment, transportation and the criminal justice system led to Trone and Rep. Dan Meuser, R-Pa., introducing a bill to make it easier for families to support a relative who needs resources to address addiction.

Fitzpatrick, a former career FBI agent and federal prosecutor, said he was struck by the number of funerals related to addiction he has attended of friends and family.

“A big piece of this puzzle is education, getting into the schools early, letting people know that substance use disorder is not a moral failing. It’s a medical condition just like any other medical condition,” he said.

Kuster, whose brother has struggled with opioid addiction, spoke about initially focusing on the issue after a conversation on an airplane with Guinta, who was having a similar issue in his family.

She also highlighted the need to look at criminal justice issues, and plans to reintroduce a bill to extend Medicaid coverage to incarcerated individuals, who face risks for addiction and recidivism.

Herrera Beutler sits on the House Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

“In my home state of Washington, the opioid epidemic has not just been a problem, it’s been a full-blown crisis that claims the lives of thousands of our family members, friends, and neighbors every year,” said Herrera Beutler, adding that she wants to help them “break addiction and empower them to beat mental health challenges.”

Last week, the appropriations panel started discussions on the effects of the pandemic on mental health and addiction.

“We recognize the urgency of the action that we need to take if we want to make an impact,” said DeLauro, who chairs both the subcommittee and the full committee.