With drug overdose deaths ravaging communities across the country, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts are planning to introduce legislation Wednesday that would require $10 billion a year in federal funding to combat the opioid crisis.
Cummings and Warren are proposing a program — modeled on 1990's Ryan White Act, which provided billions in federal money to combat the AIDS crisis — to address the drug overdoses which are claiming lives in record numbers. The program would send federal help directly to local and state governments to provide treatment services.
The two Democrats are planning to tour the states hardest hit by the opioid crisis to drum up support for what they're calling the CARE Act, an acronym for the Comprehensive Addiction Resources Emergency Act.
"This is a problem that is crying out for a solution," Cummings said. "It is literally life or death."
Warren said the time for "empty rhetoric and half measures" is over.
"I'm proud to partner with Elijah on a bill that'll give communities the tools to fight back against this epidemic," Warren said in a statement. "Congress has come together before to save lives — it's time for us to do so again."
In 2016, more than 64,000 Americans died from drug overdoses — more than the highest death tolls of the HIV and AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s. About two-thirds of the drug deaths were attributable to opioids, according to the federal government.
Yet only about 10 percent of people in need of specialty treatment receive it, the surgeon general's office says.
The opioid crisis is often thought of as a rural issue, affecting small towns in poorer parts of the country. But the death toll has hit urban and rural jurisdictions alike, statistics show.
West Virginia's McDowell County had the highest overdose rate in the country in 2016, followed by Rio Arriba County in New Mexico and Bell County in Kentucky.
Big cities were ravaged as well. Nearly 800 people died of overdoses in 2016 in Baltimore — more than double the number of homicides. More than 2,200 people fatally overdosed in Los Angeles County and nearly 2,000 died in Cook County, home of Chicago.
Cummings said he and Warren got the idea to fund a massive public health campaign against opioids from Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Leana S. Wen and her staff, who pitched the lawmakers on the need for increased funding.
"We have been calling for the same thing all along: sustained funding," Wen said. "It needs to be a proportional amount to the size of the epidemic. The funding needs to be given directly to the highest-need jurisdictions."
The legislation would provide $100 billion in federal funding over ten years, including $4 billion each year to states; $2.7 billion to the hardest-hit counties and cities; and $1.8 billion for public health surveillance and biomedical research.
It would also provide $1 billion per year for expanded services; $500 million for greater access to the overdose reversal drug naloxone; $400 million for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and $400 million to train doctors and health workers.
Cummings and Warren have teamed up on a number of key issues in recent years, including tours focusing on economic disparity in America and the challenges of the poor and middle class.
The Maryland congressman, who has undergone heart and knee surgeries since last year, is using a walker and a scooter to get around, but he said he's undeterred and expects to make a full recovery.
"My doctors tell me I will recover and be fine," Cummings said. "I love what I do. I see the pain that comes to families who lose people because of drugs. I am ambitious in trying to address this situation."