A comprehensive approach to addressing the opioid crisis

6 years ago

Drug overdoses claimed the lives of 418 Mainers last year, more than one per day.  In addition to that staggering death toll, nearly 1,000 babies in our state were born addicted to opioids and other drugs.  And Maine is not alone in grappling with this crisis. Across the country, tens of thousands of Americans are killed each year by opioids.

In response to this public health emergency, the bipartisan SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act was signed into law on October 24 after being passed by overwhelming margins in Congress.  This comprehensive legislation takes important steps toward fulfilling the multi-pronged approach I have long pushed for: prevention, treatment and recovery.

Congress has appropriated $8.5 billion this year for fighting the opioid crisis.  The SUPPORT Act will help states and communities use these funds to better address this scourge.  The legislation will provide vital assistance to individuals and families who are struggling with addiction.

As a member of the Senate Health Committee, I authored two provisions that were included in the final legislation.  These provisions will help ensure that unused prescription drugs do not fall into the wrong hands and bolster peer support networks for long-term recovery.

The first provision incorporates the bipartisan Safe Disposal of Unused Medication Act I sponsored that allows hospice staff, such as physicians, registered nurses, and nurse practitioners, to dispose of unused prescription drugs after a hospice patient dies or a medication expires.  Currently, hospice staff are not allowed to dispose of unused medications. As a result, dangerous medications with a high risk of diversion, theft, and abuse are frequently left in the deceased person’s home. This legislation was supported by the National Association for Home Care & Hospice.

The second provision is based on my bipartisan Opioid Peer Support Networks Act.  This will foster the creation of peer support networks, also known as communities in recovery, and will provide them with the resources and training they need to succeed.  Peer support networks engage individuals who are in recovery with other peers facing substance use disorders to provide long-term support in employment, education, housing, and overall wellbeing.

I witnessed these individuals’ tremendous sense of hope and resiliency when I visited the Bangor Area Recovery Network, or BARN, in Brewer last year.  The Maine Alliance for Addiction Recovery in Augusta and the Portland Recovery Community Center also provide peer support networks to serve central and southern parts of Maine.  A growing body of research is showing that peer support networks reduce relapse and improve long-term recovery. While relapse is common in addiction treatment, with rates between 40 and 60 percent, peer recovery supports have demonstrated reduced relapse rates and increased treatment retention.  Eighty-eight Recovery Community Organizations across the country, from Portland, Maine, to Seattle, Washington, have endorsed this legislation.

The SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act also takes numerous other steps to reduce the use and supply of opioids, encourage recovery, support caregivers and families, and drive long-term solutions.  It promotes research to develop new non-addictive painkillers and fast-tracks their approval, and provides help for babies born in opioid withdrawal and for mothers with opioid use disorders.

Another provision I cosponsored, the Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention (STOP) Act, would help stop shipments of synthetic drugs, such as fentanyl, from being shipped through our postal system.

Two additional measures that I championed will greatly increase access to addiction treatment.  The first gives physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and other health professionals more flexibility to prescribe medication-assisted treatment. The second reforms an outdated Medicaid policy that limits funding for residential substance abuse treatment to facilities with just 16 beds or less. This new legislation will allow states to use Medicaid dollars to pay for up to 90 days of treatment for any type of substance abuse disorder at any size residential addiction treatment facility.

The overwhelming bipartisan votes the SUPPORT Act received in the House and Senate and the President’s signature demonstrate that Washington is working together to combat the opioid crisis. This addiction epidemic is sweeping through communities here in Maine and throughout the country. We must continue our work to stop its spread and push back against this destructive tide with the combination of education, treatment, and law enforcement that this legislation supports.