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Fighting the Epidemic of Heroin and Opioid Abuse

  |  Pat Toomey February 22, 2016
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One of the first things I did as a new U.S. senator was crisscross the state and meet with county officials. I wanted to hear about the most important issues facing their communities. A pattern emerged that I wasn't expecting. From Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and across Central Pennsylvania, families were being torn apart by a heroin and prescription painkiller epidemic.

More Pennsylvanians will die this year from heroin overdoses and misuse of opioid painkillers than from the flu or homicides. It is a problem that desperately needs a solution, and I've been working in the Senate as chairman of the Senate Finance Subcommittee on Health Care to find one.

In 2013, I teamed up with Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) to combat this epidemic. Our bipartisan proposal required the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to take steps to curb the abuse of prescription painkillers. That was one of my earlier efforts, and I haven't let up.

This past October, I hosted a field hearing in Western Pennsylvania with Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.). We wanted to hear directly from those fighting the epidemic on the ground, and we heard a gripping personal story from a successful young woman now in long-term recovery who battled prescription pain pills and heroin since she was 13 years old. Our hearing was also aimed at getting feedback on my bipartisan legislation, the Stopping Medication Abuse and Protecting Seniors Act. This commonsense bill would prevent inappropriate access to opioid prescriptions, help to refer those battling addiction to treatment, and save taxpayers money.

Since my hearing, the acting administrator of the federal agency responsible for overseeing Medicare has come out in support of my bipartisan legislation, saying it "makes every bit of sense in the world." I am glad the Obama administration lent its support to my bipartisan bill, and I hope we can work together to enact it into law.

We also need to ensure well-meaning physicians are positioned to stop diversion and drug abuse. That's why I joined another bipartisan effort led by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) to provide grants to states to maintain, improve, and expand their prescription drug monitoring programs. The National All-Schedules Prescription Electronic Reporting (NASPER) program, which will soon be up and running in Pennsylvania, helps physicians and pharmacists spot individuals who may be abusing powerful prescription drugs. Providing the funding for these monitoring programs is critical to stopping the epidemic and helping steer those battling addiction towards treatment.

While opioids can help to quickly control intense pain, evidence is emerging that long-term use becomes less effective in many patients. Law enforcement officials and physicians have testified before my committee that a small number of disreputable pain clinics may be overprescribing opioids and contributing to this growing epidemic. In light of this information, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and I formally requested that the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigate these reports. The GAO accepted our request and, as you read this, the investigation is underway.

We have made some progress to stem this terrible epidemic, but from Washington, D.C to Washington County, all of us - policy makers, medical professionals, law enforcement officers, family and friends - must do more to stop opioid abuse and the heroin epidemic raging across the country. We cannot afford to wait. I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to treat addiction and save lives.