Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Speech: Opioid Epidemic

Posted on July 7, 2016

This Senate and the House are capable of doing some awfully good bipartisan work that helps the American people, and we do a lot of it. The Senator from Louisiana—the Presiding Officer today—has been working with the Senator from Connecticut, a Democrat. They have different political persuasions, and they have us very close to passing a very important mental health bill in the Senate—one that passed the House yesterday. They have worked hard on that. We are going to get that done this year. I would like to do it next week, but if not, we should be able to do it in September.

Earlier today, I went to the National Education Association annual convention, where there were 10,000 teachers from all over the country, and they gave the “Friend of the NEA Award” to Senator Murray of Washington State and to me. Thirty years ago, when I was Governor of Tennessee, I would have gotten the “Public Enemy of the NEA” award. But what they like and what teachers and Governors and chief State school officers and parents like was that last year we came together and fixed No Child Left Behind. We stopped Washington from telling schools so much about what to do and restored that responsibility where it ought to be—with teachers and parents and Governors and legislators. We have been thanked for that because it affects 50 million children and 3.5 million teachers and 100,000 public schools. We did our job.

So there is mental health, there is fixing No Child Left Behind, and we are working on something called 21st century cures. The House of Representatives has passed it. Again, the Senator from Louisiana has been working on an important part of it having to do with electronic medical records as an example. This has the opportunity to be by far the most important legislation we pass this year, and we will pass it because it is part of Speaker Ryan's agenda; the majority leader, Senator McConnell, wants to pass it; and the President of the United States is interested in it because of his focus on precision medicine and the Vice President's focus on Cancer Moonshot. There is funding for the BRAIN Initiative, which has to do with Alzheimer's. These are breathtaking discoveries which we are on the verge of in America and which would affect millions of people--research for that and then moving them through the regulatory and investment process and into the medicine cabinets.

I saw a Forbes poll the other day that showed that 82 percent of the American people would like for Congress to do more on biomedical research. They agree on that. We are doing that.

So there are three things: fixing No Child Left Behind, mental health, and 21st century cures. Then we get to opioids and we get to Zika. So what has happened here? This reminds me of the Hatfield’s and the McCoy’s in the mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee. They fought so long; they forgot what they were fighting about. They just killed each other because that is what their grandfathers did.

We have two issues here of intense interest to the American people, and we are on the verge of a significant step to help. The first is Zika. The Zika virus is terrifying young women in our country. They are postponing their pregnancies. They are afraid to have babies. They are afraid their babies will be born with deformities because we have found that if women have the Zika virus, some women have babies who have deformities when they are born. There will be a vaccine for that by 2018, perhaps. That is part of the 21st century cures initiative I was just talking about--more money for the National Institutes of Health to speed that along. But between now and then, we need to take every step we need to take to help keep the Zika virus from infecting as many people as we can.

This is a very simple disease. It is carried by a mosquito, and if a mosquito bites you, you get the Zika virus. For many people, it makes no difference, but for pregnant women, it could be a problem. It is July, and the mosquitoes are out, and it is time to eradicate the mosquitoes. The Centers for Disease Control asked us for money, and so we passed $1.1 billion here, money for Zika. We are ready to pass $1.1 billion. Because of a small provision the House of Representatives put in that has to do with who is a Medicaid provider in Puerto Rico--there are many Medicaid providers in Puerto Rico who can go about this business in July and August and September to deal with trying to keep the mosquitoes away. Our friends on the other side of the aisle won't let us pass the bill.

Now, let's stop and think about this. This is the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s at its worst. This is not the same spirit we had when fixing No Child Left Behind. It is not the same spirit we had working with the President and Speaker Ryan and Senator McConnell on 21st century cures. It is not the same spirit Senator Murphy and Senator Cassidy have shown in taking grave differences over mental health and putting them in in a way that we will get some advances on that this year. There is no excuse whatsoever for delaying the spending of $1.1 billion to help pregnant women and other families avoid the Zika virus this summer. We don't need mosquito control in the winter; we need it in the summer. And we need to pass it now because we leave and go away on our recess and come back in September.

There may be a provision in the bill that some of us would have written a different way. Maybe some of us would like some more money. But the provision that is offensive to some people is a very small provision. There are Medicaid providers all over Puerto Rico who can deal with this part of the money, and there is no excuse for not approving the $1.1 billion that we are ready to spend for Zika, period, and it is wrong for the Democrats to block that. It is wrong as it can be, and it is not in the right spirit.

I think I have a reputation here for trying to get results. I would say to my friends on the other side of the aisle: Please stop and think about this. This is the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s example that the American people really don't like. We are on the verge of doing something that would help a lot of Americans, especially young women, and we ought to do it. We ought to do it today or next week, and we surely should not go home without having done it.

The other thing we are on the verge of doing well is helping deal with opioids. Again, we are in a Hatfield’s and McCoy’s situation, apparently. I hope we avoid it, but we may be, and I would like to avoid that as well. We have talked a lot about the opioids abuse. I know what happens in Tennessee. Opioid overdose is killing more people every year than car wrecks or gunshots--car wrecks or gunshots. I had a roundtable in Knoxville several months ago. It was filled with people--judges, parents, doctors, hospital managers. Everybody is overwhelmed with this. They want some help in doing it. We can't fix it from here, but we can support those on the frontlines, and we are doing it. We are making some changes.

We have come back to Secretary Burwell and the President and said: Change the provision on the pain management survey that hospitals say encourage doctors to overprescribe opioids. Well, at first they didn't listen, but to the President's credit and to Secretary Burwell's credit, they did it; they listened and they did it at the urging of Congress.

They have increased the level of prescriptions that treatment doctors can prescribe. That was something Senator Paul, Senator Markey, and Democrats and Republicans in the House wanted to do. We might do more of it, but that was the TREAT Act.

Then we came up with a bipartisan opioid bill in the Senate and in the House. It has contributions from half the Democrats and many of the Republicans. In the House, it passed 400 to 5. In the Senate, it passed 94 to 1. It has more than 200 groups across the country who say opioid abuse is an epidemic and a crisis, so let's fix it. So we have taken a substantial step to fix it.

Yesterday we approved a merger of what the House did and the Senate did, and both will come to the House and next week to the Senate for approval.

One would think that something that had passed the Senate 94 to 1, when it comes back for approval, would pass again 94 to 1. One would think that something as urgent as dealing with opioid drug abuse--an epidemic, as I said, that is killing more people every year in my State than gunshots, killing more people every year in my State than car wrecks--one would think we would want to do something about it, particularly when we have worked hard and we have a very good package. Two hundred of the advocacy groups in this country who work on opioid abuse like what we have done.

So what is the problem? Well, our friends on the other side say you need to fund it. We are funding it, and they helped fund it. Over the last 3 years, count the last two Congresses where the money was already appropriated, in other words, it is there to spend; count the amount of money the Senate Appropriations Committee has approved, we have increased funding for opioids already by 542 percent. For those working on their math, that is five times more than we were doing 2 1/2 years ago. Then the House of Representatives came along today and said: We want to go even further than that. That is in the regular appropriations process. That is how we do our business here.

For example, last year, as I mentioned, we fixed No Child Left Behind. The President called it a Christmas miracle. Everybody is happy about it. It doesn't spend a penny. It reformed the education law. We spend the money in the appropriations process.

Every year we pass a Defense authorization bill. It reforms everything that has to do with keeping us safe in the country, but we don't spend a penny. That is in the appropriations process. We have an energy bill we are going to conference on. It doesn't spend a penny. That is in the appropriations process.

So we are spending money on opioids. We are spending money on opioids. A five times increase over 2.5 years, in addition to policy that 200 groups support and that passed the Senate 94 to 1. Now, some say there should be more. I agree. I would like to spend even more for opioids. I would like to see a more significant amount of money for State grants to help with opioids because that is where the bottom line is, but there are a lot of discussions going on about doing that. There is some discussion about doing that in the 21st century cures bill, perhaps. We talked about it and even voted on it last year. Republicans put through a bill in our so-called reconciliation process in which all but five Republicans in the Senate and House voted for $750 million each year for 2 years for opioids. That is $750 million each year for opioids. That is $1.5 billion the Republicans voted for. The President vetoed it because it also repealed Obamacare. We thought we were getting two good things--repeal Obamacare and support opioids. Of course, the President disagreed with that. This isn't all on Democrats or Republicans because we have also voted for more money for opioids.

But let's get out of this Hatfield’s and McCoy’s posture in this last week or 10 days before the convention starts when we are dealing with the lives of so many Americans. Every Senator who talked yesterday at the conference report had some story of someone from his or her State who had died from an opioid abuse--several from one family in several cases. Everyone has that story. Then how can we dare go home next week without having passed a policy that everyone who understands the subject says will help, in terms of prevention and State grants and treatment and a variety of other things, and when we have increased funding by five times over 2 1/2 years--how can we dare go home without having passed that?

Can we continue to talk about even more funding? Yes, I am ready to do that. I would like to do it. I would like to find a way to do it, but that doesn't mean we stop doing what we can do now. So I am on the floor today--and let me just remind my friends on the other side of the aisle, this opioids conference is not a Republican bill. It is filled with Democratic priorities.

Mr. Whitehouse is the lead sponsor, the Senator from Rhode Island. He is passionate about it. There are 44 Democratic Senators who voted for his version of it. Senator Warren is the lead sponsor for the Reducing Unused Medication Act. It is in the package. Senator Durbin led an amendment regarding the opioid action plan at the FDA that is included. Senator Shaheen and nine other Democratic Senators led the National All Schedules Prescription Electronic Reauthorization which is included. Congressman Sarbanes has a bill on expanding access through cold prescribing. Senator Casey introduced a plan of safe care improvement that was included.

Senators Brown, King, and Manchin are cosponsors of a Healthy Babies Act that was included. Senators Brown, King, Casey, and Feinstein were coauthors in another provision. We all put this together. We all care about it. The people we work for all need our help. We should pass it. We should pass it.

To come up with a lame excuse that we are not funding it when, in fact, we are--five times more over 2 1/2 years--that is not the kind of thing that will gain respect for the U.S. Senate.

I am here today as someone who spends most of his time trying to get results in this body, and often achieves results. I do that only because of relationships with Democratic Members as well as Republican Members. I told the National Education Association today to give Patty Murray a big hand for being the friend of the NEA on fixing No Child Left Behind because it would not have happened without her.

I would say that when we pass the opioids conference, give a big hand to Senators Durbin and Shaheen and Congressman Sarbanes and especially Senator Whitehouse, Senator Casey, and Senator Warren because they all made major contributions to this, they voted for the funding over the last 2 years, and I am sure they will this year, which will go up at least five times--five times.

So let's put the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s back in Kentucky and Tennessee. Let's say young women all over the country are terrified by the Zika virus. Let's spend $1.1 billion or make it available for the Centers for Disease Control now to help. Let's take this opioids conference report we are on the verge of passing that we are all for, and let's do it and go home. And let's add to the fixing No Child Left Behind, the 21st century cures progress, the mental health progress, our work on opioids abuse, and our work on Zika. That would be what the American people would expect of us, and I hope that by the end of next week, we find a way to do it.