New Opioid Legislation Unlikely to Slow Drug Epidemic
Long-awaited bill lacks bold strategy and boost in federal spending
Opioid legislation approved last month by Congress is a wasted opportunity. The bipartisan bill, hammered out over the past year, merely tinkers at the edges of the epidemic instead of setting out a coordinated national strategy. Most glaringly, it fails to allocate significant new long-term funding to expand access to drug treatment – our most effective means of curbing a surge in overdose deaths across the country.
To win support on both sides of the aisle, Congress adopted a scattershot approach when drafting the Opioid Crisis Response Act of 2018. The bill includes a number of worthy initiatives supported by the Rosenthal Center, such as grants for addiction and pain treatment research, stricter law enforcement to halt the flow of illicit drugs like fentanyl, and easier ways for addicts to obtain withdrawal medications. But the legislation, enacted one year after President Trump declared a national health emergency, does not contain an overall plan or a suitable increase in federal dollars for states, cities and organizations on the frontline of the crisis.
Early estimates suggest the bill will cost between $5 billion and $8 billion to implement over five years. A more appropriate allocation would be in the range of $100 billion over the next decade, a proposal made by Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Elijah Cummings that never got off the ground.
If such funds were available, I would direct the money to expanding a wide range of treatment options and redressing the severe shortage of long-term residential beds for the most vulnerable addicts. We must also support innovative programs in prisons and in poorly served rural areas, and provide targeted treatment programs for neglected teenage drug users. We should, in addition, address the growing problem of workplace addiction that is exacerbating the nationwide labor shortage (see story below).
No doubt the opioid bill will make a good talking point for candidates in the coming midterm elections. They can boast about doing something about an epidemic that killed more than 72,000 Americans last year. In fact, a Wall Street Journal analysis found that, so far in 2018, campaign ads containing opioid messaging in congressional and gubernatorial races have aired more than 50,000 times across 25 states, including West Virginia and Ohio, states with closely contested races and increasing numbers of overdose fatalities.
Such messages might swing an election. But they won’t guarantee affordable and effective addiction treatment for those suffering and dying from substance abuse. Helping these people must now become a national priority.
INNOVATIVE CORPORATE-BACKED DRUG TREATMENT PROGRAM SHOWS PROGRESS
The drug treatment initiative I helped design a year ago for Belden, an international manufacturing corporation, is yielding positive results. During a recent follow up visit to the company’s factory in Richmond, Indiana, I learned that a number of employees who successfully completed the Pathways to employment program are now operating machinery on the factory floor. Pathways is unique because instead of turning away job applicants who fail a drug test, it promises permanent jobs to those who commit to drug treatment and random drug testing.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has praised the program. When I was there a delegation of federal officials came to see the program, including Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams, Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta, the president's senior counselor, Kellyanne Conway, and Vice President Pence's wife, Karen Pence and the former first lady of Indiana. They were excited by the potential of the model and the early positive results.
Corporate America can’t single-handedly solve this drug crisis. But for the growing number of companies like Belden that face similar challenges finding drug-free workers, Pathways to Employment serves as a model that addresses the labor shortage, fights addiction and supports communities.