Speeches & Floor Statements

Opening Statement: Alexander Begins Series of Hearings on Opioid Crisis That is “Tearing Our Communities and Families Apart"

Posted on October 5, 2017

The opioid crisis is tearing our communities apart, tearing families apart, and posing an enormous challenge to health care providers and law enforcement officials. 

The amount of opioids prescribed in the U.S. in 2015 was enough for every American to be medicated around the clock for three weeks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2016, there were over 7.6 million opioid prescriptions for pain in Tennessee – according to the Tennessee Department of Health, that means there were 1,148 opioid prescriptions for every 1,000 persons.

In March, researchers published a study that found nearly one in five patients who were prescribed an initial 10-day supply of opioids were found to still be using opioids a year later.

Last year, 1,631 Tennesseans died of a drug overdose--12 percent more than the year before--mostly due to an increase in overdoses of synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, a pain medication that is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine and can kill with just a small dose.

In Blount County, where I’m from in Tennessee, there were 21 people who died from an opioid overdose in 2016 alone.

Last year was the highest rate of drug overdose deaths in recorded history in Tennessee.

And nearly 3 out of 4 of the drug overdoses in our state are related to opioids.

Last year, over 1,000 babies born in Tennessee were born addicted to opioids.

The rate of Tennesseans being prescribed opioids is one of the highest in the country.

This is a crisis. Not just in Tennessee, but across the country.

Since 1999, the rate of overdose deaths involving opioids, including prescription drugs and heroin, has nearly quadrupled in our nation.  

91 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.

I hope today’s distinguished panel of witnesses can give this committee an update on the federal response to the crisis – what’s working, and what needs work. 

HELP Committee Work on Opioids

This committee has worked together to pass laws to help prevent addiction, encourage appropriate prescribing, and improve treatment.

In July 2016, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act – CARA—was signed into law. This legislation established new programs and authorities, reauthorized existing ones, and

encouraged law enforcement, public health departments, and health care providers to work together to combat substance abuse.

A few weeks ago, the administration announced that, under CARA, $144 million in grants will be awarded to 58 recipients, including states, cities, health care providers and community organizations.

Tennessee will receive $6 million of that money.

In December, 2016, as part of the 21st Century Cures Act, we worked together to update drug abuse programs out of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and provide $1 billion to states for prevention and treatment efforts.

This past spring, the administration began issuing grants funded by Cures, totaling $485 million to all 50 states.

Tennessee received nearly $14 million of that money.  

Non-Addictive Painkillers

The most ambitious goal of 21st Century Cures was to drive the research discoveries predicted over the next decade by Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health. He has predicted the development of an artificial pancreas, organs built from patients' own stem cells, an HIV/AIDS vaccine, a Zika vaccine and non-addictive painkillers.

Non-addictive ways to treat pain could be medical devices or drugs.

While there is an urgent need for this, it is not at all a new idea – in 1928, what became known as the “Committee on the Problems of Drug Dependence” formed to organize research in pursuit of a non-addictive painkiller.

I want to hear today about the public-private partnership that NIH is leading, and about what policies FDA has put in place to make sure that the opioid alternatives submitted to FDA are prioritized appropriately and get the attention they ought to.

I have heard from numerous companies that have either submitted to the FDA or have products for pain in development, and I want to make sure they have clear guidance on what is necessary for FDA to review them in a timely way.

If traditional fast track, priority, or breakthrough pathways do not fit these products, I would like to hear how we could provide the help FDA may need. 

Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs, which are state-run electronic databases that can track controlled substances prescribed by doctors and dispensed by pharmacists, are an important and innovative tool.  

I look forward to hearing today how we can help states better integrate Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs with electronic health records to help inform physicians’ practices, while protecting patient privacy.

Congress has accomplished a lot in a bipartisan way to provide funding and update programs to assist states and help combat this public health crisis. I look forward to hearing how the administration is moving this important work forward.