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Toomey’s Take: Prince’s Death Underscores Need to Protect U.S. Communities from Dangerous Foreign Fentanyl

  |  Pat Toomey June 21, 2016

I have heard the tragic story before - in every part of Pennsylvania. A similar account had been recently reported in newspapers across the state: an individual dies from a heroin overdose or misuse of prescription painkillers. Only this time the person who died was a music superstar, Prince, and the type of opioid was fentanyl.

The death of the famous musician lifted the issue of opioid abuse to the front pages, but it has been a major concern of mine since I came to the Senate. From Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and across Central Pennsylvania, communities and families are being torn apart by a heroin and prescription painkiller epidemic that calls for congressional action. This is why I've convened field hearings and roundtables across the state and heard from those in recovery, their families, medical professionals, and law enforcement to explore solutions.

The causes of the heroin and prescription painkiller epidemic are complex and multi-faceted, but we can make progress on tackling this problem with a three-prong approach that I've outlined as chairman of the Senate Finance Subcommittee on Health Care.

First, we need to reduce the diversion of pain pills to the black market. My bipartisan legislation to stop "doctor shopping" - where a person visits multiple doctors to get duplicative prescriptions - will prevent fraudsters from gathering large quantities of opioids via Medicare. In March, the Senate passed this common sense proposal and I remain hopeful that it will get signed into law this year.

Second, we must reduce the over prescribing of painkillers. This means eliminating a harmful financial incentive created by Obamacare that links the results of patient survey questions on pain management with Medicare reimbursement for hospitals. I have cosponsored a bipartisan bill to stop this linkage of pain management surveys with Medicare reimbursement so hospitals will no longer feel financially pressured to overprescribe painkillers.

And finally, we must improve access to, as well as the quality of, treatment for addiction. This is why I supported the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. The bipartisan bill passed the Senate nearly unanimously and is now pending before the House of Representatives.

Even before Prince's death was linked to fentanyl, it was clear to me this potent, hospital-grade painkiller posed a new, more lethal threat to our state. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, the number of statewide fentanyl-related deaths has more than doubled in just one year to 829 fatalities in 2015.

Fentanyl is one hundred times more powerful than morphine and is often surreptitiously cut with heroin or included in counterfeit pills. But, fentanyl isn't reaching drug users through the usual doctor office and pharmacy channels. All illicit fentanyl and similar synthetic drugs are being made in China and illegally shipped into the United States.

Domestically, federal law enforcement has taken steps to halt the increase in fentanyl-related overdoses. But unfortunately, our domestic efforts to crack down on fentanyl will continue to be stymied so long as China's export of fentanyl and synthetic drugs remains largely unchecked. In its annual report on the illicit narcotics trade, the State Department found that China's "regulatory loopholes" have "provide[d] an ideal environment for the production and export" of fentanyl. Shadowy chemical labs in China have stayed one step ahead of our laws - as well as their own -- by manipulating the molecular makeup of fentanyl slightly to avoid running afoul of the banned substances list.

Last month, I wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry and urged him to step up pressure on the Chinese government to crack down on the criminal entities that are manufacturing and shipping illicit fentanyl into our country. China also needs to update its narcotics regulations to ban the production of look-alike fentanyl and swiftly prosecute those who violate the ban. Senior administration officials will have an opportunity to raise these issues with their Chinese counterparts during bilateral discussions on law enforcement matters this month in Beijing. I hope the White House takes advantage of it.

For many, addiction is a chronic disease where multiple relapses are common. That is why it is important to reduce the harm posed by illicit substances whenever possible. Limiting the importation of synthetic fentanyl and similar drugs from China will save lives and give those battling addiction another opportunity to achieve recovery. If we work together, both domestically and internationally, our efforts will give us the upper hand against the heroin epidemic, save lives, and protect communities across Pennsylvania.

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