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June 22, 2022

Mental Health, Drug Bill Driven by Lawmakers’ Personal Stories

Credit: Bloomberg Government, Emily Wilkins

For many lawmakers, Wednesday’s vote on a package of addiction and mental health legislation will be personal.

For Rep. David Trone (D-Md.), it was his nephew who died overdosing on fentanyl. For Rep. Annie Kuster (D-N.H.), it was her brother who became addicted after being prescribed oxycodone and OxyContin for a series of surgeries. And for Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), it was the shock of coming home to Levittown after 14 years in the FBI and realizing the magnitude of the problem.

The three House members and Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) came together in March 2021 to create the Bipartisan Addiction and Mental Health Task Force, which has been a key player in promoting and pushing legislation on those issues. Trone said of the 145 lawmakers on the task force, “virtually everyone has experienced the loss of a loved one.”

“Maybe family, maybe neighbors, maybe coworkers. Almost every person I talk to has a story,” Trone said. “That’s what drives us, our common experiences.”

Nine of the bills the group touted as part of its legislative agenda are included either fully or partially in the larger mental health and addiction package (H.R. 7666) coming to the floor Wednesday. The measure would modify rules for mental health insurance coverage and opioid treatment prescriptions while reauthorizing mental health and substance use disorder block grants and related programs.

It’s been years in the making. Trone created the Freshman Working Group on Addiction when he came to Congress in 2019, which combined with Kuster and Fitzpatrick’s Bipartisan Opioid Task Force last year to form the current group. Lawmakers also added mental health to the task force’s name, an acknowledgment of how intertwined it is with addiction.

Task force members not only write legislation, they also vet bills and send ones that get their stamp of approval to colleagues to cosponsor. Kuster said a combination of bipartisanship and support gives legislation “liftoff” to make it to the floor.

That worked for the bills included in the larger package from the Energy and Commerce Committee. Chair Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) attended a task force roundtable this month with Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. At the time, he said in a statement that he looked forward “to continuing to work with the task force and the White House” to finalize the mental health legislation.

The measure, cosponsored by the panel’s ranking member Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), was advanced by voice vote in May.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said the task force demonstrated “how Democrats and Republicans can work together, drawing on their own experiences, to benefit millions of Americans.”

Both mental health and drug overdoses have become major issues in the US. In 2021, drug overdoses hit an all-time high, with more than 107,000 people dying, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A third of Americans reported symptoms of anxiety and depression in 2020, according to a survey published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in February 2021.

Fitzpatrick said there’s always been an “unaddressed mental health crisis in this country” that’s recently been exacerbated by 24-hour news, social media, and Covid-19.

“It’s almost like the perfect storm,” Fitzpatrick said. “That’s resulting in a mental health crisis in this country and an addiction crisis because, oftentimes, people that have a substance use disorder are self-medicating for an underlying mental health issue.”

Task force members are already focused on getting the bill through the Senate, meeting with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the chair of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee who has focused on mental health legislation.

Kuster said while the issue can be “a tough nut to crack,” lawmakers who have dealt with the issue have “sort of a personal bond.”

“That ties us together,” she said, “and gets us over some of the challenges that we’ve had.”