Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massacusetts Democrat, speaks during a roundtable discussion in Boston on April 6. She called for the federal government to treat the opioid addiction crisis in a way similar to how it attacked the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massacusetts Democrat, speaks during a roundtable discussion in Boston on April 6. She called for the federal government to treat the opioid addiction crisis in a way similar to how it attacked the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. (Patrick Whittemore / AP)

With 175 Americans dying each day from drug overdoses, the opioid crisis is akin to “a plane crashing every day,” Mayor Catherine Pugh said Friday as she and other Baltimore officials urged Congress to approve comprehensive legislation to combat the epidemic.

“We are in desperate need at this particular point in time,” Pugh said at a roundtable discussion that included Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, community leaders and addiction experts at the city offices of Health Care for the Homeless.

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Cummings and Warren, both Democrats, sought to use the forum — televised nationally by C-SPAN — to promote legislation that would provide $100 billion over 10 years for services to combat substance use disorders. The legislation is modeled after the Ryan White Act of 1990, which provided billions of federal dollars to combat the AIDS crisis.

“This is what we on the front lines have been asking for,” said Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen, who moderated the panel.

Cummings told The Baltimore Sun “we’re trying to get some momentum.”

“We want people to understand the significance of the problem and how it is a burden on society and families and individuals,” he said. “I don’t think a lot of people realize how significant this problem is.”

Republicans have said the measure, known as the Comprehensive Addiction Resources Emergency Act, or CARE, is too expensive. The bill has wide support among House Democrats, but without GOP backing it faces long odds this year.

“Addiction is not just a Democratic problem,” Warren said. “I talk to my Republican colleagues every day about the scourge of addiction.”

“I have no doubt that they will come around,” Cummings said.

Supporters say concerns about the price tag should be offset by the current cost of the opioid crisis.

According to President Donald J. Trump's Council of Economic Advisers, the crisis costs the American economy more than $500 billion a year.

The number of drug and alcohol-related deaths in Maryland reached an all-time high of 2,282 last year, according to data released this week by the Maryland Department of Health.

There were 9 percent more deaths than in 2016, the department reported. Most of them — 2,009 — were opioid-related.

Under the CARE act, backers say, Maryland would receive roughly $48 million a year in state formula grants to fight substance abuse and the opioid epidemic, and the opportunity to apply for more funding from a $1.6 billion grant program.

The legislation would use local grants to target the hardest-hit communities. Baltimore, which suffered 1,095 overdose deaths from 2014 to 2016, could get as much as $13.7 million a year, supporters said. Baltimore County, which had 811 drug overdose during the period, could get $10.1 million.

Experts say drug addiction often is tied to other problems, such as homelessness.

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“What we’ve learned here is that housing is health care,” said Kevin Lindamood, President and CEO of Health Care for the Homeless.

Pugh agreed.

“If you don’t have a place to lay your head, it is hard for us to treat you,” she said. “We can’t treat them if we can’t house them.”

Warren said addiction is often treated differently from health issues.

“We take a broken leg as a serious medical problem,” she said. “We treat medical problems with humanity. But not so with addiction.”

Sen. Ben Cardin, Rep. John Sarbanes and interim Baltimore Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle also attended.

The House has passed several bills aimed at increasing access to treatment and to prevent the importation of opioids such as heroin and fentanyl.

Sarbanes, who represents portions of Baltimore, has considered a number of bills as a House Energy and Commerce health subcommittee member.

“Some was kind of window dressing so people could have talking points when they went back to their district,” the Baltimore County Democrat said. “In those markups I and others were talking about the CARE Act. It’s the only way you can address a crisis of this proportion.”

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