In Effort To Stem Opioid Crisis, Mass. Congressional Delegation Reaches Across The Aisle

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The opioid crisis is a tragedy with some unlikely side effects.

In this case, one of those side effects is uniting Democrats from Massachusetts with Republicans from the Midwest.

U.S. Sen. Ed Markey is teaming up with his colleagues from across the aisle to push for both legislation and information.

"[Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell [of Kentucky] and I are requesting that there be a surgeon general report on the opioid overdose epidemic in the United States," Markey said.

Markey is also co-sponsoring a bill with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul to expand the use of medication-assisted treatment, like Suboxone.

He says doing all this with Paul and McConnell isn't that strange.

"We have an epidemic in both states, and we have to ensure that we put together a national plan."

Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Ed Markey

"The reason I can do that with two senators from Kentucky, who are Republicans, is that there really is no difference between Lexington, Massachusetts, and Lexington, Kentucky," Markey said. "We have an epidemic in both states, and we have to ensure that we put together a national plan."

There's similar bipartisanship in the House.

Rep. Katherine Clark, from the state's 5th Congressional District, is pushing a bill that focuses on infants and neonatal abstinence syndrome. Her partner on the Senate side is again McConnell.

"Mitch McConnell and I may disagree on 98 percent of topics, but we agree on this," Clark said.

Clark is focusing on the increasing number of babies suffering from opioid addiction and withdrawal.

"After I heard about an infant in my district, in Malden, who was born dependent on opiates and had seizures during his withdrawal that were so severe that his retina detached in his eye, we started looking into this crisis," she said.

Research in the Journal of Perinatology shows opioid addiction in babies grew nearly five-fold between 2000 and 2012. And some of the most frequent cases were in New England.

Clark's bill tries to pull the best practices from around the country to improve treatment and prevention for sick babies. The bill has 80 cosponsors so far, and they're from both sides of the aisle.

"My approach has been to try and find representatives and senators in other states that, we share this tragic bond that our communities are really being devastated by the opiate crisis," Clark said.

Last week, at a hearing of the House Committee Energy and Commerce, nobody really voiced any opposition to Clark's bill.

Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy III, of the state's 4th Congressional District, sits on that committee.

"The big push that I've been trying to focus on in our hearings is this comes back to the lack of resources — lack of doctors, lack of treatment facilities, lack of beds, lack of continuum of care," Kennedy said, "because our federal government has systematically underfunded resources for prevention and treatment."

He wants to improve Medicaid reimbursements.

Kennedy is also pushing his own bipartisan opioid legislation. A couple months ago he filed a bill with a Republican congressman from Kentucky to reauthorize the nationwide prescription drug monitoring program.

And these days he's sponsoring a sort of opioid omnibus bill. One of the things it would do is improve prescription education for health providers.

"One of the big challenges here is we're seeing prescription opiates that are being prescribed for conditions that weren't necessarily how they were meant to be prescribed when some of these drugs were developed," Kennedy said.

For this new bill, Kennedy is teaming up with a Republican from Indiana.

There's a lot of ideas on Capitol Hill about how to cure the opioid epidemic — a lot of bills floating around. And Kennedy says it's going to take an unprecedented level of coordination on the federal, state and local level to make any progress.

"The hard part to it is that there's no easy answer," he said.

But Kennedy says that also means Congress might be able to solve a portion of the problem. "It is so complex there's pieces of this we can take bites out of," he said.

And that's what Kennedy and his colleagues are trying to do this Congress — take some bipartisan bites out of a growing epidemic.

This segment aired on July 1, 2015.


Asma Khalid Reporter
Asma Khalid formerly led WBUR's BostonomiX, a biz/tech team covering the innovation economy.



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