State health experts ask Congress for help combating opioid crisis

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor. Photo provided by the office of Kathy Castor

WASHINGTON — States need sustained, flexible federal funding to support programs working to reduce deaths and addiction from opioids and other drugs, state health officials told Congress this week.

Public health officials asked lawmakers for continued commitment to Medicaid and programs that help states address drug addiction. A panel of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing on the issue on Tuesday.

“Moving an entire system of care is a monumental task. We’re working diligently and we’ve made staggering progress, but please don’t give up,” Jennifer Smith, secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, told lawmakers. “It depends on sustained funding and support.”

States have been trying to respond to a growing problem of addiction to opioids and other drugs and overdoses. From 1999 to 2017, nearly 400,000 people across the United States died from opioid overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Federal lawmakers passed a collection of bipartisan bills in 2018 aimed at fighting the opioid crisis. The legislation provided states with billions of dollars in federal funding to assist with response, treatment, and recovery.

State public health officials from Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and West Virginia credited Medicaid expansion in their states for giving them the ability to pay to  treat many of those who face addiction.

Rep. Diane DeGette (D-Colo.), who chaired the hearing, said states now face a “fourth wave” of the crisis: a large increase in methamphetamine use.

“In 2018, there were more than twice as many deaths involving meth as 2015, and meth is increasingly turning up in overdose deaths and drug busts across the country,” DeGette said.

“Given the complexity of the epidemic and its ability to evolve, states, federal government agencies, and Congress must remain vigilant.”

“This is not a crisis that we can resolve overnight, and it requires ongoing federal and state attention,” said Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.). “States are on the front lines of this national emergency, providing much of the support for those in need. They are our eyes and ears on what is occurring on the ground, and that’s why this hearing is so important. “

“There is one glaring problem that has been highlighted by a few of my colleagues, and that is the lack of continuity of care and resources in the states that have not expanded Medicaid,” said Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.).

Castor and other Florida Democrats sent a letter to state lawmakers this week asking them to expand Medicaid in Florida — which they say could bring in billions of dollars of federal support to the state over the next five years.

“You are not doing right by our citizens,” said Castor.

Top Republicans on the committee also re-opened an investigation this week into the role three major drug manufacturers have played in the opioid crisis.