In the News
Posted on October 24, 2018
The Tennessean: In rare bipartisan victory, Trump signs opioid act into law
By Brett Kelman
October 24, 2018
President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed into law a far-reaching legislative package designed to combat the opioid crisis by hastening research into nonaddictive painkillers and curbing the flow of illegal fentanyl entering the country.
The new opioid law, officially named the SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act, should be especially impactful in Tennessee, where a hard-hitting addiction crisis has killed more than 5,000 people and fentanyl deaths are skyrocketing.
The legislation was sponsored Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and passed Congress with rare bipartisan support. As the president introduced the lawmakers behind the new law, he thanked Alexander first.
“Together, we are going to end the scourge of drug addiction in America," Trump said. "We are going to end it or, at least, make a big dent in this terrible, terrible problem."
Trump spoke for about 15 minutes during the signing ceremony, wavering between prepared remarks and ad-libbing in a sometimes-freewheeling presentation about large drug seizures and a nationwide crackdown on the over-prescription of opioids. Trump said his administration would now build upon this progress with “the single largest bill to combat drug crisis in the history of our country.”
After Trump concluded his remarks, more than a dozen executives from companies such as Amazon, Walgreens, Johnson & Johnson, Facebook, MyPillow and Ultimate Fighting Championship announced commitments to help fight opioid addiction.
In a joint statement issued after the signing, Tennessee’s Republican officials echoed the president’s high hopes for the new law. Alexander called the act the “most important new health care law this year.” Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker said the law would “help countless Americans.” And Gov. Bill Haslam said the bill would combat an epidemic that impacts Tennesseans “regardless of race, income, gender or age.”
“This new law is a major step in helping fight this epidemic — it will help limit the supply of opioids, help develop a nonaddictive pain killer, provide resources to provide treatment for those with opioid use disorders, and much more,” Haslam said in a news release. “I feel confident that this comprehensive plan will make a difference in the lives of Tennesseans and I thank Sen. Alexander for his leadership on this tough issue.”
The signing ceremony began with a rare introduction by first lady Melania Trump, who spoke briefly about the dangers of drug addiction and the need for cooperation between families, medical professionals and law enforcement.
“As a nation, we must come together to fight this epidemic by providing as many resources as possible,” she said. “I know that as long as my husband is in office, this will remain a priority. Fighting opioids abuse goes across all party lines.”
This message of togetherness, which was repeatedly echoed by the president and the first lady, appeared to back off prior statements by Trump in which he claimed Democrats showed very little support for the bill. In reality, the act received overwhelming bipartisan support, passing the House 393-8 and the Senate 99-1.
Trump did not take questions during the event.
The legislation signed Wednesday includes more than 70 law changes tackling a wide range of opioid-related issues, including closing some legal loopholes that have allowed the drugs to proliferate and made it harder for those who are addicted to get treatment.
Despite the wide-reaching changes in the new law, some medical advocates have criticized the legislation for not going far enough. The law does not, for example, appropriate funding to dramatically expand the availability of addiction treatment, which experts often say is necessary to curb the opioid epidemic.
When asked about this criticism last month, Alexander stressed all that the legislation accomplishes, not what it doesn’t. Alexander also said that Congress had appropriated $8.5 billion to fight the crisis since March.
“I think the critics are imagining that somehow there is an agency in Washington that can solve this problem with a magic wand — that won’t work,” Alexander told The Tennessean. “But what we can do is dozens of steps and billions of dollars that will equip doctors, medical schools, border guards and others to fight the opioid fight at home.”
One of the most meaningful changes is expected to come from the Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention Act, or STOP Act, which should make it harder to import narcotics through the mail by requiring the Postal Service to collect electronic data — including sender information, destination and contents — on merchandise entering the country. The law is designed specifically to stop shipments of fentanyl, a cheap-to-produce synthetic opioid painkiller that is 50 times more potent than heroin.
Fentanyl was once barely known outside of hospitals, but it has become the deadliest threat in the opioid crisis. Fentanyl is often imported through the mail from Mexico and China, then mixed into heroin or counterfeit pills to pad the profits of drug traffickers.
Other provisions in the Senate package expand access to programs for the prevention and treatment of opioid addiction, provide grants to states to buy back unused prescription drugs and offer recovery care at hospitals or pediatric centers for babies born suffering from opioid withdrawal.
Another provision would speed up the research and development of nonaddictive painkillers, which Alexander has called the “holy grail” of the fight against the opioid epidemic.
“We sometimes forget there are 100 million Americans living with some pain, and there are 25 million who really hurt because they have chronic pain,” Alexander has said previously. “They need help, and we need more effective medicines and treatments for pain.”
Blackburn lauds passage; Democrats attack
Trump's signature on the opioid act also renewed arguments in Tennessee’s contentious senatorial race, where opioid legislation has been a battleground between candidates.
Republican U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who voted in favor of the opioid bill as it passed through the House in June, issued a statement Wednesday afternoon celebrating the new law.
“As a mother and grandmother, my heart breaks for Tennessee families that have lost loved ones in the struggle against addiction,” Blackburn said. “Although we have a long ways to go, these solutions will give those fighting on the front lines new tools to treat addiction and stem the flow of illicit drugs into our Tennessee communities.”
The Tennessee Democratic Party, however, sent out a news release to “remind” voters that Blackburn “was too busy campaigning” to vote on the final version of the legislation. After the House bill was combined with a Senate bill into a final version of the bill, Blackburn was one of a few dozen lawmakers to miss the approving vote.
“… She abandoned the job Tennesseans elected her to do,” Mark Brown, a Democratic Party spokesperson, said in an email. “While Senator Alexander and his colleagues are actually trying to help stop the scourge of opioid addiction, Blackburn is too busy campaigning for a promotion to even care.”
Much of the politicking over opioids in the Tennessee senatorial race has focused on a different opioid law — the 2016 Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act — which was co-sponsored and strongly supported by Blackburn. Last year a joint investigation by The Washington Post and "60 Minutes" revealed that the law had hamstrung the Drug Enforcement Administration by making it virtually impossible to freeze suspicious narcotics shipments from pharmaceutical companies suspected of supplying pill mills with painkillers.
Blackburn has defended her role in enacting the law and said that any negative impact on the DEA were "unintended consequences.” Her opponent, former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, has repeatedly criticized Blackburn for allowing the law to stand.
Brett Kelman is the health care reporter for The Tennessean. He can be reached at 615-259-8287 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.