Speeches & Floor Statements

Hearing Statement: The Opioid Crisis Response Act of 2018

Posted on April 11, 2018

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions will please come to order.

This hearing is for reviewing the Opioid Crisis Response Act of 2018, which Senator Murray and I have recommended with input of virtually every member of this committee.

Our intention is to mark up the bill and report legislation to the full Senate by the end of the month.

This is our seventh bipartisan hearing on the opioid crisis since October.

Each hearing has been bipartisan and our proposals reflect the urgency of a prompt response to our country’s most serious public health crisis, which despite enormous efforts continues to get worse.

Senator Murray and I will each have an opening statement, and then we will introduce the witnesses. After the witnesses' testimony, senators will each have 5 minutes of questions.

Last week, I visited the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Niswonger Children’s Hospital in Johnson City, Tennessee.

The hospital opened a new, separate unit within their NICU last May to help deal with all the infants were being born in drug withdrawal.

Of the 30 babies in the unit last week, 10 were in drug withdrawal. The babies stay in the hospital at least five days, some stay for weeks.

While at Niswonger, I heard heartbreaking stories of how the opioid crisis has claimed the lives of loved ones too soon. One story is about a man named Dustin Iverson.

After serving two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Mississippi National Guard, Dustin settled in a small town in Alabama. A year and a half ago, Dustin was found dead at 29 years old from an apparent overdose.

His death turned turning a national crisis from a news headline to a painful personal experience for his aunt Trish Tanner.

Trish is currently the Chief Pharmacy Officer at Ballad Health, a regional health care provider.

She was enrolled in an executive fellowship program when Dustin died and as part of her program, she worked on an in-depth project on ways to reduce opioid prescribing.

She has said about the project, “I researched the opioid crisis in our region. As Dustin’s aunt and as a pharmacist, I have a duty and a desire to bring about change now. This is a way for us to redeem what has been lost.”

As a result of Trish and her colleagues efforts, the health system she was working for at the time, now part of Ballad Health, reduced the number of inpatient opioid doses administered in its hospitals by more than 40 percent last year.

In January, Sam Quinones testified before our Committee that we need a “moonshot” to solve this crisis.

I think it may require the effort and resources of a moonshot but I also think it will be different and harder because this is not something that can be undertaken by a single agency in Washington, D.C. -- it will require all-hands on deck work and solutions from states, communities, and local partners.

However, the federal government can and should play an important role. Last Congress we passed new laws – the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act and the 21st Century Cures Act – to help address the crisis.

In the last three years, we have provided additional funding targeted at easing the opioid crisis, including $1 billion in state grants in Cures over two years and over $3 billion of additional funding in the omnibus bill we passed last month.

But the opioid crisis continues to destroy families and communities, and so we need to examine what more we can do to make sure the federal government is the best possible partner in this fight. 

In December, Senator Murray and I wrote to every governor and state insurance commissioner asking for ideas on how we could do that.

And this committee has spent the last six months hearing from governors, state officials, doctors, officials from the Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, families, and other experts at our bipartisan hearings.

As we have heard, this crisis touches more than just those suffering from an opioid addiction – children and grandparents and doctors, nurses, and law enforcement.

And so, the response from the federal government must be bipartisan, urgent, and effective.  

Last week, Senator Murray and I released this draft legislation based on the input we have heard, as well as ideas from Senators on both sides of the aisle, to give new authorities and create grants and programs at six federal departments and agencies.

So far in this draft, there are 29 proposals, from nearly every member of this committee, including:

Legislation introduced by Senators Murray, Young, Hassan, and myself to spur development of a non-addictive painkiller by giving the National Institutes of Health additional flexibility.

I see a non-addictive painkiller really as the “Holy Grail” of solving the opioid crisis.

There are millions of Americans who suffer from chronic pain and I have heard from many of them in Tennessee who rely on opioids for relief from their pain.

Developing new, non-addictive ways to treat is crucial to helping prevent people from becoming addicted opioids while ensuring those who need relief have access to it.

Our proposal would also give FDA the authority to require drug manufacturers to package certain opioids for a set duration, like in a blister pack that contains medication for 3 or 7 dyas, and require manufacturers to give patients simple and safe ways to dispose of unused opioids.

It would also help us do a better job of stopping illegal drugs, such as fentanyl, at the border by strengthening coordination between FDA and Customs and Border Protection.

At our hearings, we heard about the importance of sharing data, and how sharing data would help state prescription drug monitoring programs, so this draft would help states collect and share data so doctors and pharmacies can know if patients are “doctor shopping.”

We asked for written comments on the draft by close of business today on what more the federal government can do.  

I look forward to hearing feedback now from our witnesses.