Fighting Back Against the Opioid Crisis

Every day, more than 115 Americans die after overdosing on opioids. From 2000 to 2016, that comes to a total of more than 600,000 – more than ten times the number of Americans who died in the Vietnam War. And the crisis shows no signs of slowing down: across the country, millions of Americans are still struggling with opioid addiction, and the epidemic has cost our nation more than $1 trillion since 2001.  Acting boldly and immediately will actually save us money down the road.

Southern Indiana is in the eye of the storm. Indiana opioid overdose deaths have more than doubled in the last three years. They increased by 28 percent from July 2016 to July 2017.  Every one of those deaths means immeasurable pain for a family, a school, and a community. Synthetic opioids like fentanyl, which can be 50 times as powerful as heroin, are ending lives and destroying homes. Here in the Ninth District, Scott County suffered almost 200 cases of HIV – transmitted by shared needles that were used to inject opioids.

We are facing the worst public health crisis in a generation. There is no time to waste.

President Trump has talked the talk about helping Hoosiers, but he hasn’t walked the walk. First and foremost, the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion have made mental health and addiction treatment available to millions of people with substance abuse disorders.  Any rollback of those programs will have disastrous consequences.  Introducing more bureaucratic requirements to access health care, which Seema Verma and Mike Pence have endorsed at the state and federal level, is governmental insensitivity and incompetence at its worst. We must be loud and clear about this. 

We need representatives in Congress who will take action, like Indiana's Senator Joe Donnelly, who has provided crucial leadership on this issue. One key bill is the Expanding Opportunities for Recovery Act, which would free up desperately needed federal money to expand access to in-patient opioid addiction treatment, through grants to states. We need to provide in-patient rehabilitation services to every American who needs them, and which isn't covered by all private health insurance plans.

But one of the biggest challenges in fighting the opioid epidemic is the sheer shortage of treatment facilities and trained professionals, especially in rural areas. That’s why I support Senator Donnelly’s Strengthening Addiction Treatment Workforce Act, which would offer student loan repayment and forgiveness to workers at addiction treatment facilities. That would help those facilities recruit more nurses, social workers, counselors, and therapists. We also need to boost federal investment in rural hospitals, and explore the potential of telehealth and telerehabilitation programs to reach more people who are struggling with addiction. I support Congresswoman Cheri Bustos’ Addiction Recovery for Rural Communities Act, which would use the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development budget to do exactly that.

Too often, the worst effects of this epidemic fall upon those least able to bear them: our children. That’s why I support Congresswoman Bustos’ bill to address one of the most important consequences of the opioid crisis: the number of babies born with an addiction. That bill, the Nurturing and Supporting Healthy Babies Act, will expand research into this problem and help us find better solutions for Hoosier families. But I also know that our child welfare system here in Indiana has been overwhelmed by increasing caseloads: just about everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve heard the stories of grandparents caring for children because their parents can’t. Congress needs to do more to make sure that children born into families struggling with substance abuse don’t fall through the cracks.

Finally, we need to make sure that our response to this crisis is based on solid evidence and medical best practices. So, for example, we need to implement the CDC’s guidelines for opioid prescription. As Dr. Eric Yazel of Clark County has said, these rules are just common sense: doctors shouldn’t treat opioids as a routine pain treatment, they should look at risk factors like a patient’s history with addiction before prescribing opioids, and they shouldn’t prescribe more than a week’s worth of pills for acute pain (cancer and end-of-life care are a different story). The CDC has also found that needle exchange programs can reduce HIV rates by more than 30 percent – and right here in Scott County, a needle exchange was essential in bringing the HIV and Hepatitis C outbreak under control. So why did the Lawrence County commissioners vote last fall to end their needle exchange? With lives at stake, we can’t afford to base our decisions on anything less than solid evidence. That’s why I support the implementation of the CDC’s guidelines on opioid prescription and needle exchanges: because these practices work, and Hoosiers deserve a government that puts our health first.

But when I look at the opioid epidemic, I see more than a public health crisis. I also see a social crisis. I see rising rates of suicide and alcohol-related deaths, as well as drug overdoses. I see people struggling with mental illness in a part of Indiana that one mom in Bedford told me is a “mental health desert.” I see men and women robbed of their jobs by offshoring, or robbed of decent pay by union-busting. I see whole communities struggling with chronic pain and illness while big pharma companies flood them with addictive pills.  I see schools that struggle with low-funding levels to provide essential supports to students whose families are torn apart by addiction.

We need a Congress that will do its part to improve addiction treatment. But we also need a Congress that will stand up for working people across the board, because we know that this crisis didn’t come from nowhere. I support "Ban the Box" legislation, which would allow people with criminal records due to opioid abuse to integrate back into the workforce. 

In the long run, any solution to the opioid epidemic is going to take an investment in Americans: in schools and affordable health care, decent jobs, quality education and strong communities. That’s an investment in hope, because without hope this crisis will never end. If we want to conquer this epidemic, we have to fight for a country in which everyone gets a fair shot – and no one is left behind.