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OpinionCommentary

Acting on opioids is easy. Recovery is hard

Let’s turn words into actions. Let’s turn suffering into hope. Let’s cure America of this painful epidemic. And let’s do it together.

This Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017 photo shows an

This Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017 photo shows an arrangement of pills of the opioid oxycodone-acetaminophen in New York. Photo Credit: AP / Patrick Sison

During his State of the Union Address last week, President Donald Trump repeated a promise that he has made many times: America is finally going to do something about its opioid epidemic. The issue could not be more pressing.

We are in the midst of a national public health crisis that cut short 64,000 lives in 2016 alone, a 21 percent increase in overdose deaths over the previous year. Given the devastating urgency of this issue, I want to believe that our president has not forgotten the tragedy of those lost and the pain of the loved ones they leave behind. But he has made similar promises in the past, nearly all of them abandoned and broken.

Mr. President, every day of inaction means 175 more lives lost to this epidemic. Enough is enough. We need you to listen to leaders in Congress, including members of your own party, who are working across the aisle right now to save lives and address this deadly epidemic.

In this current atmosphere of partisanship and division, addressing the opioid epidemic is one of the few priorities that could still find bipartisan agreement in Congress. Leaders in both parties, across all levels of government and sectors of the economy, and even from the president’s own bipartisan opioid commission, have proposed ways to strengthen the pillars of prevention, treatment, and recovery. I have a few specific solutions included in the list. The vast majority of these ideas spent the past year on a shelf collecting dust.

Matters could actually get worse. During his first year, President Trump pushed a major budget-crushing tax bill and multiple health care repeal measures that will bind the hands and budgets of local, state and federal government leaders who are already struggling to get their arms around this crisis.

His administration continues to push for a 95 percent cut to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the federal office responsible for coordinating the government’s response to the opioid epidemic. The president has yet to even nominate a director for that office, which through January 2018 was largely led by a 24-year-old whose major professional qualification was working on the Trump presidential campaign.

If the president is finding it difficult to take meaningful action on opioids, I would welcome him to visit upstate New York to meet many of the constituents I have heard from in recent years who are walking the path of recovery.

Take Brendan Norton for example, my official guest for the president’s first State of the Union.

At age 23, Brendan suffered a life-threatening leg injury that required 19 surgeries and two months in the hospital. He was sent home with more than 200 hydrocodone pills, a doctor’s prescription that helped fuel an addiction that came to dominate his life. After a decade of darkness, with the help of his wife and family, Brendan had a moment of clarity and reached out for help.

Luckily, he found it.

Those moments of clarity are familiar to many who suffer from substance use disorder. But all too often when they do reach out, no one is there to take their hand.

Just 20 percent of people who need treatment for this condition are receiving it. That treatment gap isn’t just a number. It represents hundreds of thousands of individuals who are suffering in communities all across this country every day. Access to treatment can mean the difference between recovery and overdose.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress agree on the need to address this issue. Many are sponsoring bills to help close the treatment gap and strengthen our safety net for the individuals and families who need it.

Despite floundering from this White House, Congress has not been completely silent on this issue.

In 2016, I secured a legislative addition to the 2016 Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, or CARA, that expanded the ability of doctors and certain advanced practice nurses to prescribe medication-assisted treatments for individuals with substance-use disorder. Early in this Congress I introduced two major pieces of legislation to build on that progress.

The first, the Addiction Treatment Access Improvement Act, would build on progress made under CARA by adding additional nursing specialists and formalizing a cap increase for the number of medication-assisted treatment patients a doctor can treat at any given time. The House Bipartisan Heroin Task Force has endorsed including this bill among its top legislative priorities for the year.

The second, the Medicaid Reentry Act, would allow states to restart Medicaid benefits for beneficiaries transitioning out of a jail or prison 30 days before their release. The idea behind the bill responds to an alarming reality: Individuals with substance-use disorder as they depart the criminal justice system are eight times more likely to overdose in their first week out.

Addiction is a brutal and unforgiving disease of the brain and leaves people profoundly vulnerable. Just like Brendan and so many others, our nation can walk down the path of recovery, but it’s going to take more than a few sentences read from a teleprompter on the House floor.

As we move forward in 2018, I implore the president to practice what he claims to preach and take decisive leadership on this issue. Let’s turn words into actions. Let’s turn suffering into hope. Let’s cure America of this painful epidemic. And let’s do it together.

Rep. Paul D. Tonko represents New York’s 20th Congressional District and is in his fifth term. He serves on the Energy and Commerce Committee and the Science Space and Technology Committee.

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