Senator Susan Collins, a member of the Senate Health Committee, questioned four federal agency leaders at a hearing today on the federal government’s response to the opioid crisis in the United States. In 2016, Maine experienced a record 376 overdose deaths, an increase of 38 percent over the previous year. This alarming statistic averages out to more than one overdose death a day and exceeds the number of deaths from car accidents, suicide, or breast cancer.
“This morning’s headline in the largest newspaper in the State of Maine says this, ‘Portland, Falmouth officials deliver bleak report on opioid crisis: ‘It’s getting worse,’” said Senator Collins. “And this headline disturbed me greatly because I feel there has been so much focus on the opioid problem. This epidemic is tearing apart our communities and costing the lives of so many.”
Senator Collins observed that Congress has passed legislation and increased funding to address the opioid abuse crisis, but “we seem not to be making the kind of progress that we need to make.” She asked each of the hearing witnesses to discuss which efforts are working and which are not in order to improve the federal government’s effectiveness at addressing this issue.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said he believed his agency could have “an outsized impact” at “trying to reduce the rate of new addiction by taking steps to decrease the overall rate of exposure to opioids.” The FDA is seeking to accomplish this by changing prescribing behaviors among physicians.
Dr. Francis Collins, the Director of the National Institutes of Health, echoed Dr. Gottlieb’s comments, but noted that there must be “alternatives to opioids for those 25 million people who do suffer from chronic pain.” Consequently, the NIH is accelerating its efforts to advance research into non-addictive, but highly effective, pain medicines.
As a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senator Collins has continuously urged Congress to increase investment in addiction treatment services. Last July, Congress passed, and President Obama signed into law, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA). The legislation, which was cosponsored by Senator Collins, is an evidence-based response to combat the heroin and opioid epidemic.
In addition, last month Senator Collins announced that the Senate Appropriations Committee approved $816 million – a $665 million increase over the past two years – for the Department of Health and Human Services’ opioid abuse treatment and prevention programs. The bill directs $500 million to state opioid crisis grants, which were authorized through the 21st Century Cures Act, a bill that was championed by Senator Collins and signed into law in December 2016. Earlier this year, Senator Collins announced a $2 million grant to the State of Maine through funding that was authorized under this law.