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Federal lawmakers tout House opioid abuse bills

Sarbanes bill would encourage docs to prescribe overdose reversal drugs.

Members of Baltimore's congressional delegation on Monday touted a package of bills passed recently by the House of Representatives intended to address the national opioid abuse epidemic, but they also pointed to the shortcomings of that legislation -- including a lack of funding.

The House and Senate have both approved bipartisan legislation on heroin and prescription drug abuse, but the packages are substantially different. Both measures, which now must be resolved by a yet-to-be-appointed conference committee, do not include new money to pay for the programs lawmakers envision.

Rep. John Sarbanes of Baltimore County was the original sponsor of one of the House-passed bills. His proposal would encourage and train doctors to prescribe overdose reversal drugs, such as Naloxone, when they prescribe pain medication and other opioids.

The idea is to ensure that if a patient becomes addicted and overdoses that there is medication on hand that could save his or her life.

"This opioid and heroin epidemic is ravaging our country," Sarbanes said in Baltimore City on Monday.

Sarbanes' legislation, which passed by voice vote on Wednesday, anticipates $5 million in funding over five years, with individual grants up to $200,000 to help train medical providers to prescribe Naloxone.

"The family can go away knowing that they have this Naloxone available in case there is an overdose," the Democrat said. "If it could be more widely available, it could save more lives."

Heroin claimed 578 lives in Maryland in 2014, a 25 percent increase from 2013, and double the number who died in 2010. More than 340 people in Baltimore died from drug and alcohol overdoses in the first three quarters of 2015, up from the 303 who died in all of 2014.

Some 20,000 people are addicted to heroin in Baltimore.

Public health officials see a link between pain medication addiction and heroin as patients who get hooked on the former sometimes switch to the latter if they cannot secure refills.

"We need to treat this as a health problem," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, noting that Democrats in Washington have sought unsuccessfully to set aside additional funding for treatment.

"You can pass all the legislation you want, but if you don't have any money -- but if you don't have enough money -- you're just basically going through a feel-good exercise."

House Republicans have said any additional spending on treatment will be considered as part of the annual appropriations process. It is not yet clear, however, whether that larger budget process will get off the ground in a contentious presidential election year.

The Baltimore lawmakers stressed a fundamental shift that has made the issue more palatable for members of both parties to work on: The epidemic is no longer just affecting urban centers like Baltimore, but has also become a problem in rural America, which is more often represented by Republicans.

Three people died of heroin overdoses in Harford County during a 19-hour stretch on Saturday, for instance.

The legislation "passed with a huge bipartisan support, which says a lot during this political climate," said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County Democrat who represents portions of Harford County.

But, he added, "the trend will not change by simply authorizing new grant programs, studies and and reports."

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