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October 25, 2023

White House presses for money to prevent opioid deaths as congressional dysfunction stymies aid

Credit: NBC News

The White House on Wednesday requested $1.55 billion from Congress to address illicit fentanyl driving overdose deaths across the country as part of a broader funding package.

The funds sought by the Biden administration would be included alongside money for grants to states, territories and tribes through a Department of Health and Human Services program that aims to help strengthen addiction treatment, overdose prevention measures and recovery support services.

“As we continue to lose an American life to drug overdose every five minutes around the clock, Congress must come together and take immediate action,” Dr. Rahul Gupta, the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said in a statement.

“Today, we are calling on Congress to help advance the Administration’s ongoing work to connect more people to treatment and build healthy, safe and resilient communities. As a physician who has spent decades treating patients and administering life-saving overdose reversal medications, I cannot underscore the importance of these critical public health funds enough,” Gupta added.

The administration had asked Congress for money focused on foreign policy and border issues, including an additional 1,000 law enforcement personnel and investigative capabilities to prevent cartels from moving fentanyl into the country.

Researchers last month found the U.S. was in a “fourth wave” of the opioid crisis, with the proportion of overdoses involving fentanyl and a stimulant found to have increased more than fiftyfold from 2010 to 2021.

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Legislation to address opioid overdoses hasn’t come to a floor vote in either chamber this year. The SUPPORT act, a bill passed in 2018 that provided $20 billion toward opioid use treatment, prevention and recovery, expired Sept. 30.

In July, Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, introduced the SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Reauthorization Act to uphold prevention, treatment and recovery services provided by the original SUPPORT act.

The legislation hasn’t come before the committee for consideration.

“Tens of thousands of Americans are dying each year from drug overdoses. We need a markup and a reauthorization of the SUPPORT Act to evaluate and improve these life-saving programs. Missing these deadlines puts vital resources in jeopardy,” Cassidy said in a statement to NBC News.

As chair of the committee, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is responsible for scheduling a mark-up to allow for the new act to be considered.

Sanders’ office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

In the House, the SUPPORT act was unanimously voted out of the Energy and Commerce Committee this year but hasn’t been brought to the floor for a vote.

Rep. David Trone, D-Md., a co-chair of the Bipartisan Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder Task Force, told NBC News that he believes that the recent dysfunction in the House has prevented the bipartisan bill from reaching the floor.

“For the last three weeks, the House floor has been paralyzed as House Republicans struggle to elect a new Speaker — effectively neutering the chamber’s ability to move any legislation, including bills that have wide support such as the SUPPORT Act,” Trone said in a statement before Wednesday’s speaker vote.

House Republicans elected a new speaker Wednesday, 21 days after Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., was ousted. With a backlog of legislation during that period, the prospects for the SUPPORT act are unclear.

Rep. Lisa McClain, R-Mich., a co-chair of the Bipartisan Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder Task Force, acknowledged that partisanship has kept the legislation from getting to the floor.

“Congress hasn’t focused on this is because of the hyper-partisan politics that have taken place recently,” she said in a statement. “Taking on the opioid epidemic requires bipartisanship, and right now we have too much infighting in the halls of the House to refocus on what’s really important regarding substance use disorder.”