House approves opioid bills, but not the one Baltimore health commissioner says 'we desperately need'

The House of Representatives, considering a legislative package to combat the opiod epidemic, won’t vote on the bill that Baltimore’s health commissioner says is “what we on the frontlines desperately need.”

The bill would provide $100 billion over 10 years for services to combat substance use disorders. It is sponsored by Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat.

Republicans have said the measure, known as the Comprehensive Addiction Resources Emergency Act, or CARE, is too expensive. The House Rules Committee, which decides what amendments are in order, declined to allow the bill to be attached to legislation on the floor Wednesday offering housing vouchers for people recovering from substance use disorders.

Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen had advocated for the CARE bill, which is modeled after 1990’s Ryan White Act that provided billions of federal dollars to combat the AIDS crisis.

“It is what we on the frontlines desperately need,” Wen said in a release this week. “It would deliver sustained funding, in an amount commensurate with the scope of the crisis, directly to areas hardest hit by addiction and overdose.”

In a floor speech Wednesday, Cummings said: “None of the bills we are considering this week provide the dedicated and sustained resources we need to combat this crisis. We cannot just rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. We must treat the opioid epidemic like the public health emergency that it is.”

The Republican-controlled House is considering dozens of bills this week to combat the crisis. The CARE bill had not made it past the committee process, which is why Cummings sought to attach it to a measure on the floor.

Another bill, co-sponsored by Rep. John Sarbanes, a Baltimore County Democrat who represents portions of Baltimore City, was approved Tuesday. It would provide student loan debt relief for physicians, nurses, social workers and others in the substance use disorder field.

Rep. Andy Harris, a Baltimore County Republican, applauded the House for passing a series bipartisan measures to “reduce unnecessary prescribing of opioids, strengthen education, increase access to treatment, and prevent the importation of opioids like heroin and fentanyl through the international mail system.”

In May, the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved 57 bills related to the opiod crisis, sending them to the floor for consideration this month.

Cummings has said he didn’t expect the CARE Act to pass this year, but hopes it will next year after his and Warren's tour of particularly hard-hit states and after a new Congress is seated. He said 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 is costing the American economy more than $500 billion a year.

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