A group of Democratic senators, including Charles Schumer of New York and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, called on their Republican counterparts Thursday to pass emergency funding to tackle the prescription opioid and heroin crisis — the latest attempt by top politicians to address the problem on a national level.
Earlier this month, President Barack Obama said he would ask for $1.1 billion in the 2017 budget for funding to fight opioid and heroin abuse, including prevention programs, prescription drug monitoring programs and efforts to expand access to the drug naloxone, which is used reverse overdoses.
“All of the rhetoric in the world isn’t going to help expand access to naloxone to prevent overdose deaths and endless Senate speeches,” Schumer said. “Authorization bills won’t mean more beds at treatment centers to curb addiction.”
“We need a tourniquet and that comes in the form of emergency funding," said Sen. Edward J. Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, who took part in the call for emergency funding. "We are hemorrhaging lives by the day."
Later, Schumer tweeted: “Beyond opioids & heroin, for Zika, for the crisis in Flint, we must give resources to those on the front lines fighting for public health.”
Schumer’s remarks cast the opioid crisis, which has mostly affected white Americans, as a public health issue. That stands in stark contrast to the political rhetoric around the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980’s. Crack addiction affected mainly African-Americans and was treated as a moral failing, prompting calls for police crackdowns and long prison sentences. In an October New York Times article exploring this disparity, Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said, “Because the demographic of people affected are more white, more middle class, these are parents who are empowered … They know how to call a legislator ...”
The opioid epidemic in the United States, which has been building over the past 10 years, has garnered increased attention since the presidential primaries in New Hampshire, a state that has been particularly hard hit by drug abuse. Democratic presidential candidate Hilary Clinton wrote an op-ed in the Union Leader, a local New Hampshire newspaper, about the fight against substance abuse. Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush published an article on Medium, in which he addressed the opioid problem, and his own daughter’s struggles with addiction.
Currently, 49 states have prescription drug monitoring programs, which act as electronic databases to keep track of all medications prescribed to a single patient, even if they are prescribed by several different doctors. However, those monitoring programs are not mandatory in all states.
The American Medical Association recently created a task force to deal with prescription opioid abuse, and advocates for states to tailor their responses to the needs of their population. In a previous interview with Al Jazeera, Dr. Patrice Harris, the chair of that task force, said that “each state needs to decide what works best for that state … we want the states to come up with state-specific solutions.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that since 1999, the amount of prescription painkillers prescribed and sold in the U.S. has nearly quadrupled.