Not too long ago, we wrote about an executive order passed by Governor John Kasich of Ohio to fight addiction. We noted similar programs in other states, but also said that more needed to be done. Now, Congress appears to have answered the call by passing the first major anti-addiction bill in decades. And to be quite frank, it could not have come at a better time. With opioid addiction turning into an epidemic, we need all the support we can get from our nation’s lawmakers. Not only are they answering our prayers, but in overwhelming fashion to boot.
The new anti-addiction bill passed the Senate with flying colors, supporters outweighing naysayers 92 to 2. Of course, this bill did not unite everyone completely. Even many of the bill’s supporters voice concerns regarding the future of addiction treatment. Nonetheless, it is quite clear from the results of the vote that the opioid epidemic has been officially recognized by our government. This is a major step toward fighting opiate addiction, and one for which both addicts and their families should be thankful.
Below, we’ll speak to the specifics of the anti-addiction bill and what it accomplishes in terms of fighting addiction. We’ll also address what still needs to be done in light of the growing opioid epidemic. Finally, we’ll discuss ways that you might be able to help. We have discussed some of these things before. But now that Congress has become more strongly involved in the fight against addiction, we feel it is important to focus upon change at the national level. We were taught that this is a nation in which we all have a voice. It’s time to start making our voices heard.
Specifics of the Anti-Addiction Bill
The anti-addiction bill, known as the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), sets money aside for numerous efforts to reduce opioid and heroin addiction. The federal money set aside under the bill amounts to a total of $181 million. CARA stands to achieve a few things, some of which improve addicts’ lives while others may even save them. For instance, CARA aims to increase the availability of naloxone. This overdose-reversal drug has not only been advocated by treatment centers, but also by those who treat patients for the management of chronic pain. In other words, not only would it save addicts, but potentially also first-time abusers who overestimate their limits.
Another aim of CARA is to increase the availability of treatment instead of prison. It appears that many in Congress understand that addiction is a disease. Incarceration often punishes people who desperately need treatment. It is not wrong to punish someone for committing a crime, but punishing them with providing them much-needed help only ensures they will return to their drug use. With CARA receiving final approval, this problem stands to change drastically. Addicts with legal issues can finally begin making real progress toward reforming their lives and embracing sobriety.
Those who wish for medication-assisted treatment such as Suboxone (buprenorphine with naloxone) will also find CARA quite accommodating. At the time of writing, doctors cannot use buprenorphine to treat more than one hundred patients at a time. Under CARA, this will not change; however, nurses and assistants will now be able to provide treatment. This stands to make medication-assisted treatment much, much easier. With more treatment providers available, more patients can receive treatment regardless of patient limits. This is vital, as nobody should be turned down from receiving the help they need because they happened to be the unlucky 101st person to ask.
Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who assisted greatly in CARA’s authorship, praises Congress for approving the bill:
“This is a historic moment, the first time in decades that Congress has passed comprehensive addiction legislation, and the first time Congress has ever supported long-term addiction recovery. This is also the first time that we’ve treated addiction like the disease that it is, which will help put an end to the stigma that has surrounded addiction for too long.”
Despite Portman’s justified enthusiasm, however, some problems accompany the approval of CARA. And like many things in government, they largely revolve around money.
What Still Needs to Be Done?
While this new anti-addiction bill may advocate alternatives to incarceration, you might notice an omission. Namely, the fact that the bill doesn’t seem to take measures for increasing access to treatment in any general terms. Why? Well, that primarily comes down to funding. Democrats in Congress wanted to add $920 million to the bill but were unsuccessful. And not without reason. Portman says that treatment and prevention programs will be a separate issue later, while analyzing current federal spending. In the meantime, a separate anti-addiction bill (actually a health spending bill) approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee earlier in 2016 will put $261 million more toward treatment and prevention of opioid addiction.
This extra money seems great, but many still think that CARA’s budget needs increasing. According to Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York):
“This bill is like a Hollywood movie set—something that appears real on the surface but has no substance and no life behind its façade.”
His words are not without merit, but potentially unrealistic. Adding $920 million to any bill could be potentially reckless. Addiction treatment requires money, but America’s current deficit looms as a major problem when discussing budget increases of any kind.
Kentucky-based addiction specialist Dr. Mina “Mike” Kalfas notes even further problems with the bill. He believes that it could be the start of something wonderful, but it potentially lacks more than just adequate funding for treatment programs.
“Without integrated care and treatment, adequate resources, societal change and…harm-reduction strategies, etc.—without successful implementation of these things we will continue losing.”
Societal changes and harm reduction strategies potentially lie outside the jurisdiction of Congress. Our government cannot force society to treat addicts differently simply by passing an anti-addiction bill. Even after receiving treatment, many return to a world in which they feel like they are keeping a dirty secret. They feel that they can only trust their friends in recovery, lest they be judged as something less than human.
In all actuality, most people probably do not view addicts in this way. Many have had beloved friends and family members struggle with this disease. We should give people credit for their capacity to exhibit sympathy and understanding. More importantly, we should do what we can to aid the cause. This anti-addiction bill will not be the first of its kind, but we can potentially do a lot to ensure that future bills do more to make up for CARA’s lack of adequate resources.
How Can We Assist the Cause?
When we’ve mentioned ways of pushing legislation before, our advice always includes contacting your local and state representatives. In this case, you should specifically focus on your senators. Find out how they voted on CARA and let them know how you feel about it. Feel free to share both praise and criticisms, letting them know what you’d like to see from future bills. Share your personal experiences with them if you’re comfortable doing so. Let them know that you understand our country’s budget concerns, but that the lives of our citizens are what matter most.
Since this particular anti-addiction bill does not greatly enhance access to treatment programs, some things need to be done at the local level as well. For instance, you might consider donating to recovery centers or programs that help get people into treatment. These do not need to be cash donations. Many treatment centers would be very grateful to receive donations of food, clothing, blankets or other supplies. You would expect addicts and alcoholics to bring their own clothing and blankets when entering inpatient treatment, but you might be surprised at how many are lacking such necessities. Some do not have blankets at all, and others are wearing clothing so old that it either does not fit or is simply not in decent condition.
Getting back to legislation, we might note a few things to ask for in the next anti-addiction bill. First, prescription databases need to be improved. Not all states have connected their databases, meaning there is little to keep addicts close to state lines from doctor shopping out of town. Second, one comment on USA Today noted that we already have a great deal of state-level funding—the prison budget. As we’ve noted before, keeping prisoners locked up is expensive. But if we use the prison budget to fund treatment options for addicts with legal issues, we can split treatment costs from the average cost of housing prisoners. The savings could then go back into the prison budget, or even a larger state budget that addresses other concerns.
Our government cannot represent us without hearing our voices. This most recent anti-addiction bill shows that, so far, they have been listening. We must now continue to speak in the hopes that they will keep listening. Some believe that bipartisanship is dead. In the case of this anti-addiction bill, it appears to have been effective. Let’s do our part to ensure that remains the case.