Speeches & Floor Statements

Opening Statement: Alexander: Tennessee on Front Lines as Opioid Crisis Has Caused a “Sharp Increase” in Babies Born in Withdrawal

Posted on February 8, 2018

  • This is the fourth in a series of hearings this Congress on the opioid crisis. Today we are looking at its effect on children and infants.
  • Before we turn to today’s focus, I wanted to say that later today, I, along with Ranking Member Murray, and Senators Young and Hassan, will introduce legislation to help address the opioid crisis.
  • Dr. Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, has predicted that the development of a new, non-addictive painkiller could be achieved within five years with consistent funding and more flexible authority to conduct the necessary research. Our bill would give NIH more flexibility to conduct research to address the opioid crisis.
  • This committee plans to hold a markup on this bill, as well as other legislation to address the opioid crisis, as soon as the end of March.
  • 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. 
  • The opioid crisis is particularly heartbreaking for families and children.
  • No one understands that more than Jessie, an East Tennessee woman who lost a baby during the nearly two decades she struggled with an addiction to opioids and other substances.
  • When Jessie entered recovery in September 2012 she had no driver’s license and no formal education, but she did have a calling to help those still battling an addiction.
  • Today, she is working to complete a degree in Human Services before beginning on a Master’s, but most important, Jessie is a powerful resource for pregnant women in East Tennessee who are addicted to opioids.
  • She is a peer advocate at 180 Health Partners – a Nashville startup that helps coordinate comprehensive care for expecting mothers who are struggling with opioid use. In her role as a peer advocate, Jessie provides support and encouragement to women going through the same battles Jessie fought during her recovery.
  • Babies born to mothers using opioids are at risk for neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS, and may go through withdrawal symptoms and face other health issues. 
  • 180 Health Partners works with Medicaid managed care organizations, to help expectant mothers begin treatment and stay in treatment after their baby is born.
  • 180 Health Partners has only been around for about a year – but they have already seen dramatic results.
  • Babies born to mothers working with 180 Health Partners stay in the intensive care unit for half the time of other babies born with NAS.
  • The average cost to treat a baby born with NAS is $66,700 – the cost is considerably less for babies born to mothers in the program.
  • 180 Health Partners has also been successful working with the state to help mothers in the program keep their babies.
  • Jessie says: “We want these moms to just understand that they are pregnant and you should just stop it…our disease does not just turn off because we get pregnant…today it is about continuing to change my life, and through helping other addicts -- that’s the only way that I can breathe, this is my entire existence… …I have had numerous mothers tell me…my only support is 180 Health Partners.” 
  • The work that being done by 180 Health Partners is just one example of how states, communities, and local organizations are dealing with what the Tennessee Department of Health has described as a “sharp increase” in the number of babies born in opioid withdrawal.
  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of infants born in withdrawal from opioids has tripled from 1999 to 2013.
  • And according to one of our witnesses, Dr. Stephen Patrick from Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Tennessee has a rate of babies born in drug withdrawal that is about three times the national average.
  • Another example of communities responding to this crisis is Niswonger Children’s Hospital in Johnson City, Tennessee, which treats about 350 infants a year who are born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome.
  • The hospital has developed programs to help families care for their babies born with NAS and bring services that offer addiction treatment to a mother addicted to opioids while they are still in the hospital after having their baby.
  • The opioid crisis affects more than just infants –many grandparents and relatives have taken on the role of caregiver for children whose parents are addicted to opioids. 
  • In Tennessee, between 2010 and 2014, there was a 51 percent increase in the number of parents who lost parental rights because of an opioid addiction.
  • This is a problem seen nationwide as well – after steadily declining since 2000, there has been a 10 percent increase in the number of children in foster care in the last three years. In some places, the numbers have even tripled in the same time period.
  • While that was a lot of numbers, they represent real families and children whose lives are being affected by the opioid crisis.
  • It is important for the committee to hear how states are helping ensure newborns and children impacted by drug abuse are being cared for, and if they need changes to federal law or regulations to help improve that care.
  • I believe the focus should be on helping keep families stronger, together – how can we help parents receive treatment and stay clean, while still protecting their children.
  • States and local communities – those on the frontlines – are taking steps to help children and families affected by opioid abuse.
  • Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam announced last month a new comprehensive proposal to respond to the opioid crisis.
  • Included in the plan is a targeted outreach program to educate young women addicted to opioids on the risk of neonatal abstinence syndrome.
  • And TennCare actually saw such a sharp increase in babies born with NAS that Tennessee became the first state to create a statewide database to track how many infants were born with NAS each year.
  • Congress has also taken a number of steps in recent years.
  • In 2015, this committee approved and Congress later passed, the Protecting Our Infants Act, sponsored by Senators McConnell and Casey, to help ensure that federal programs are more effective in helping expectant mothers struggling with opioid abuse receive the help they need to have healthy babies.
  • In 2016, Congress passed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), which included input from many members of this committee, to help states on the frontlines of the opioid epidemic.
  • Included in CARA were updates to the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, which require states to have “plans of safe care” for babies and children impacted by drug abuse—of both legal and illegal drugs.
  • Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act in 1974 to combat child abuse and neglect and to provide funding for states to improve their child protection and child welfare services. This includes funding for the prevention, identification, and treatment of child abuse and neglect. 
  • Due to updates included in CARA, the law now requires states to address the needs of both the infant as well as the affected family member and requires states to collect new information about these impacted infants and families so we can better understand the full extent of the crisis.
  • Congress also passed the 21st Century Cures Act, which this committee worked so hard on, in 2016, which included $1 billion in grants for states to fight the opioid crisis. 
  • What I want to know today is, are these laws helping states and communities address the problems faced by children and families in the opioid crisis?
  • Are there any federal barriers states and communities face?
  • I want to ensure states are able to coordinate all the services a parent addicted to opioids, and the children who are impacted, may need – including mental health treatment, and substance use disorder treatment and family supports.

 

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