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Lawmakers Weigh Eight Bills To Fight Opioid Epidemic

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Ethan Barton Managing Editor

A congressional subcommittee discussed eight bills Wednesday aimed at curbing the opioid epidemic through strengthened law enforcement and adding protections for patients.

The bipartisan legislation covers a range of initiatives, such as getting synthetic drugs like fentanyl off the streets, making it easier to dispose of medications and helping patients in rural areas access treatment.

“Now more than ever, we must come together and strengthen our commitment to fight this scourge,” physician and House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Health Chairman Michael Burgess said during the hearing.

More than 200,000 Americans died from prescription opioid overdoses between 1999 and 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It requires an all-hands-on-deck approach,” Texas Republican Burgess added.

The hearing was the first of three the subcommittee will hold, regarding legislation intended to fight opioid deaths. The next two will focus on prevention-and-treatment-related bills.

Oregon Republican and full-committee chairman Greg Walden expects to have a legislative package on the House floor by Memorial Day.

Four of the bills discussed Wednesday have been introduced, while the other four are still being assessed to ensure they will help combat opioid overdose deaths without hindering doctors, pharmacists and patients.

One bill will help change how federal agencies categorize drugs in order to regulate fentanyl/derivatives to keep them off the streets.

Committee witness and Virginia Commonwealth University toxicology and pharmacology professor Patrick Beardsley was concerned the bill would impede opioid addiction research. “We are all dedicated to finding paths to take us away from our present opioid crisis,” Beardsley told the committee. “I believe one path will be through research.”

Another bill makes it more difficult to produce counterfeit drugs via allowing the DEA to regulate machines used to create pills.

There’s also a bill  that seeks to ease the disposal of controlled substances, including opioid painkillers — particularly those belonging to hospice patients.

“We believe H.R. 5041 represents a common-sense, real-world approach to allowing hospice agencies to authorize their personnel to safely handle controlled substances … for the sole purpose of assisting in their proper disposal after a hospice patient’s death,” Trillium Institute Director John Mulder told the committee.

An additional bill will provide educational material to pharmacists to help them detect fraudulent prescriptions, while another would require doctors to receive 12 hours of education on pain management treatment every three years.

“This bill would help reduce unnecessary exposure to addictive medications by requiring prescribers to be educated on safe prescribing practices and addiction,” California Society of Addiction Medicine President David Kan told the committee.

But Burgess added, “This policy … concerns me greatly because it seems to suggest that doctors are primarily at fault for the opioid epidemic. As we consider solutions critical to blunting this crisis, we must strike a careful balance before casting blame.”

But none of these bills address pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors, which face hundreds of lawsuits from state and local governments for flooding America with prescription opioids. Eighty percent of recent heroin users’ addiction started with such medications, according to a recent study.

Purdue Pharma, for example, is widely blamed for initiating the opioid epidemic via aggressively marketing its drug, OxyContin, to doctors while downplaying the painkillers’ addictiveness, a previous Daily Caller News Foundation investigation found. Physicians, consequently, began prescribing opioids for a wider range of uses.

OxyContin sales helped make Purdue Pharma sole owners the Sackler family one of America’s richest clans with its $13 billion net worth, according to Forbes.

The Department of Justice meanwhile announced a new task force Tuesday that will target manufacturers and distributors and that it would submit a statement of interest for a lawsuit against such companies.

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