Congress Takes on Appropriations and Opioids
Steptoe & Johnson LLP
As Congress returned from its Memorial Day recess, both the Senate and the House continued on appropriations bills and addressing the opioid epidemic.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has committed to approving all 12 spending bills before the start of the next fiscal year (FY) on October 1. The ability of the Senate to achieve that goal is increasingly unlikely as consideration of some appropriations bills has been slowed by controversial amendments.
Both the Senate and House Appropriations Committees have approved their respective Commerce, Justice and Science (CJS) spending bills, which serve as the primary sources of federal funding for programs designed to assist law enforcement.
The bills place a renewed emphasis on addressing the heroin and opioid abuse epidemic. Approved unanimously by the Appropriations Committee in late May, the House’s FY 2017 CJS spending bill provides $103 million for programs to reduce opioid abuse, of which $42 million is for drug courts, $7 million is for veterans’ treatment courts, $12 million is for residential substance abuse treatment, $14 million is for prescription drug monitoring, and $12.5 million is for the establishment of four new enforcement groups focused on counteracting heroin trafficking.
The House bill also directs the Office of Justice Programs to work with the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the National Institute of Justice to develop and help communities implement best practices to address opioid abuse.
In total, the House bill would provide $2.3 billion for state and local law enforcement assistance grants, including $476 million for Byrne Justice Assistance Grants (JAG).
The version of the appropriations bill approved by the Senate Committee included slightly more funding for combating the heroin and opioid scourge — allocating $132 million for those purposes. Many of these programs are funded at levels similar to those in the House bill. For example, the Senate bill would provide $43 million for drug treatment courts, $6 million for veterans’ treatment courts, $14 million for residential substance abuse treatment grants, $14 million for prescription drug monitoring and $12.5 million for four new anti-heroin enforcement groups.
Overall, the Senate bill would provide a total of $2.4 billion for law enforcement grant programs, with $476 million allocated for Byrne JAG, as in the House bill.
At the time this went to print, the full Senate was considering the FY 2017 CJS bill on the floor. In the wake of the recent terrorism-connected mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, Senate consideration of this bill may get bogged down with related amendments. For example, it is expected that Democratic lawmakers will use this opportunity to introduce various gun-related amendments, including one aimed at prohibiting people on the terrorist watch list from purchasing firearms. The Orlando shooter had previously been on the FBI’s watch list in 2013 and 2014, but was removed after investigators found no criminal charges to pursue and closed the case. Republicans are concerned that such a ban could unfairly deny citizens their Second Amendment rights without due process. Other measures, such as background check enhancements and assault weapons bans, are likely to be offered.
Also at the time this went to print, there was a question as to whether the House would take up its version of the CJS appropriations bill prior to adjourning in mid-July for the conventions and August recess. If both the House and Senate fail to approve their respective versions of the CJS appropriations bill, the legislation will be kicked over to an expected omnibus appropriations bill likely to be considered after the November elections.
PORAC will continue advocating for Congress to adequately fund the priorities of local law enforcement and explained the difficulties and dangers that arise when such agencies do not receive the resources they require to carry out their mission.
Opioid and Heroin Abuse Epidemic
The issue of opioid and heroin abuse continues to plague individuals, families and communities in every corner of the country at an alarming rate.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more Americans are now dying annually from opioid and heroin overdoses than from traffic accidents. Moreover, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment found that overdose deaths rose by an astounding 244% between 2007 and 2013.
The DEA’s report also notes that trafficking cartels are playing a major role in the increased smuggling of heroin and other drugs into the United States. In addition to its renewed focus on funding the fight against opioid and heroin abuse, Congress has considered, and PORAC has been closely following, dozens of pieces of legislation in recent weeks aimed at attacking the unprecedented problem.
In mid-May, the House of Representatives took the most substantial action to date on this front when it passed a package of 18 bills related to combating the epidemic. Included in the package were the Comprehensive Opioid Abuse Reduction Act (H.R. 5046), the Opioid Program Evaluation Act (H.R. 5052), the Good Samaritan Assessment Act (H.R. 5048), the Co-Prescribing to Reduce Overdoses Act (H.R. 3680), and a bill that would establish an interagency task force to review, modify and update best practices for pain management and prescribing opioids (H.R. 4641). The House package amends and makes significant changes to the Senate-passed Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act.
House and Senate leaders are selecting members who will be part of the conference committee that will resolve the differences between the two chambers’ versions. The House has already named its 35 conferees — including California Representatives Kevin McCarthy (R), Judy Chu (D) and Raul Ruiz (D) — and the Senate is expected to select its conferees very soon.
In addition to this major package, more individual bills regarding opioid and heroin abuse continue to be introduced. Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) recently put forth the Budgeting for Opioid Treatment Act (S. 2977), which would establish a one-cent tax on production and importation of opioid pain relievers per milligram of opium or opiate. The funds raised from this tax would be used to support addiction recovery facilities and other programs geared toward addiction treatment and rehabilitation around the country. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is a co-sponsor of the legislation.
Another related bill, the Empowering Pharmacists in the Fight Against Opioid Abuse Act (H.R. 5314), was introduced by Representative Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.). This bill would develop programs and materials to inform pharmacists, health care providers and patients on the circumstances under which a pharmacist may decline to fill a prescription for a controlled substance if the pharmacist believes the prescription is fraudulent, forged or otherwise indicative of abuse or diversion.
PORAC continues to closely monitor congressional efforts to address the epidemic and has written to lawmakers about the policies it believes could help curb the deadly spread of opioid and heroin abuse.
PORAC has urged Congress to work to seal our nation’s borders to stop the influx of illegal drugs from abroad. By cutting off the flow of the nation’s heroin supply, the drug’s availability and affordability will decline, and subsequently, its popularity.
PORAC believes that irresponsible prescribing practices have exacerbated this epidemic and has emphasized the importance of passing legislation to ensure that pharmaceuticals are being prescribed in a safe manner. Improved regulation of medical prescribing practices and pain clinics could help eliminate this entry point for countless eventual addicts, while promoting anti-diversion monitoring systems and protections against fraudulent prescriptions.
PORAC continues to advocate for robust funding for community policing activities and social service programs. Without the necessary funds, local law enforcement cannot properly protect the public, and social services cannot provide remedial support to addicts within the criminal justice system.