Alexander: Washington, D.C. Can Help, But Solution to Opioid Crisis is Strong Community

Posted on January 9, 2018

“Here are two things I am hoping to learn… First, when 100 million Americans live with pain, 25 million of them with chronic or severe pain, why is it not a good idea to continue to find the so-called Holy Grail of medicine, a non-addictive pain medicine? And, second, if stronger communities are the ultimate solution to this crisis… what can a central government in Washington do that actually helps?”

WASHINGTON, January 9, 2017—Senate health committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) today said the antidote to the opioid crisis is strong local communities and that the federal government can be a helping hand, saying, “in the end, it boils down to creating an environment in which communities themselves can fix problems—not sending single-shot solutions from a distance.”

Alexander said, “The challenge the opioid crisis presents has captured the attention of every member of this committee. Yesterday, I dropped by a meeting at the Tennessee Governor’s Residence in Nashville looking at discouraging the over prescription of opioid painkillers. The governor told me in our state of 6.6 million people, there were 7.6 million opioid prescriptions written in 2016, and that even though the amount of opioids prescribed had gone down, the number of overdose deaths in Tennessee is up because of abuse of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid.”

The Senate health committee today held the first hearing this year, and the third in a series on the opioid crisis, with author Sam Quinones, who has extensively researched and written about the crisis. 

Alexander continued: “Mr. Quinones, your research and writing have been acclaimed for their depth and breadth. Here are two things I am hoping to learn from you: First, when 100 million Americans live with pain, 25 million of them with chronic or severe pain, why is it not a good idea to continue to find the so-called Holy Grail of medicine, a non-addictive pain medicine? And, second, if stronger communities are the ultimate solution to this crisis, as you have often suggested, what can a central government in Washington do that actually helps?”

“This search for a non-addictive pain medicine began 75 years ago with the Committee on Problems with Drug Dependence. This effort to find a better way to treat pain, you say, led to a revolution in attitudes toward pain treatment, first using opiates to relieve pain for dying patients, then for patients with chronic pain and then—abetted by a multitude factors—spiraling into the addiction and its consequences we face today.”

“At least twice before this CongressDr. Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health, has predicted that the Holy Grail that was first sought 75 years ago is within reach. But in your work, researchers say that this Holy Grail may never be found and that even some scientists say it should not be found. So I hope you will tell us: should we not continue to try to find non-addictive pain medicine to relieve suffering without addiction? Is that not the obvious antidote to the opioid epidemic?”

“The second area I hope to learn from you about is what we can do from Washington, D.C. Mr. Quinones, you and I apparently have at least one thing in common: I am a skeptic of Washington’s capacity to solve problems that are essentially problems of communities, families and lifestyles. In your words, ‘I believe more strongly than ever that the antidote to heroin is community.’”

On October 5, the committee held the first hearing of the series which focused on the federal response to the opioid crisis, and on November 30, the committee heard from witnesses representing states, communities and providers on what they are doing and what, if any, new authorities they need from the federal government to fight the crisis.

In December, Chairman Alexander and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-Wash.) sent a letter to every governor and state insurance commissioner in the nation asking how the federal government can be the best partner for states on the front lines of the opioid crisis.

Alexander’s full prepared remarks are here.