State health experts ask Congress for help combating opioid crisis

A man walks by a billboard for a drug recovery center in Youngstown on July 14, 2017 in Youngstown, Ohio. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

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 problems. A panel of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing on the issue.

“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 on Tuesday. “It depends on sustained funding and support.”

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States have been trying to respond to a growing problem of addiction and overdose to opioids and other drugs. 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 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 also credited Medicaid expansion in their states for giving them the ability to pay to  treat many of those who face addiction.

U.S. Rep. Diane DeGette (D-Colo.), who chaired the hearing, said states are now facing a “fourth wave” of the opioid 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.”

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“This is not a crisis that we can resolve overnight, and it requires ongoing federal and state attention,” said Energy and Commerce Committee Chair 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. “

In 2017, Michigan saw more than 2,000 deaths related to opioids and more than 7,000 people have died in the last five years, according to figures from Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has founded a task force and set a goal of cutting the number of opioid deaths in half in five years.

In Pennsylvania, more than 2,700 people died in 2014 from overdose, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs. That number doubled in 2017 to 5,400 deaths. In 2018 the state saw an improvement, an 18 percent decrease in overdose deaths.

“As the statistics rose year over year, our primary focus became simple, to keep Pennsylvanians alive,” said Smith. 

She credits the improvement to expanded access to medication-assisted treatment and efforts to transition people treated in the emergency room for overdoses to more comprehensive addiction treatment. 

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Pennsylvania was also able to distribute almost 13,000 kits with naloxone — an opioid overdose rescue drug — free of charge in 2018 and again in 2019, thanks to a combination of state and federal funding. 

“While it is not clear whether the promising trend will continue in 2019, it is clear that the more than $230 million in federal funding the state has received is making a tremendous impact,” Smith said.

Smith said the next challenge for the state is to do more to try to prevent drug use and overdose in the first place.

“Our primary focus was keeping people alive. Now that we have started to get a handle on that, we can spend some time and energy looking upstream, at how we can improve our prevention efforts,” Smith told the panel.

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Republicans press opioid manufacturers for answers

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.

U.S. Reps. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) and Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.) sent letters to the opioid manufacturers yesterday to try to get more information on what the companies knew about the sales and dangers of their medication.

“We write today to reactivate the investigation started on August 2, 2018, that examined potential breakdowns in the controlled substances supply chain, which may have contributed to the nation’s opioid epidemic, and the role of certain opioid manufacturers in such potential breakdowns,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter. 

The lawmakers sent letters to Insys Therapeutics, Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals and Purdue Pharma.

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They asked Phoenix-based Insys for more information about an alleged kickback scheme designed to boost sales of a fentanyl spray. The letter to Mallinckrodt requests more information about their efforts to monitor sales for suspicious orders. 

Lawmakers asked Purdue Pharma about the company’s marketing of OxyContin after the FDA determined in 2001 that the addictive painkiller should not be used long-term.  

Meanwhile, lawsuits on the issue are piling up. This week, Walgreen, CVS, Walmart and Rite Aid filed their own lawsuit against physicians in two Ohio counties for excessive prescriptions of opioids.The two counties had previously sued the major national drugstore chains for their distribution of the drugs.