WASHINGTON — The Senate on Wednesday voted down a proposal that would have provided an immediate $600 million boost in funding to combat the rising rate of drug overdoses hitting the nation.
The proposal, offered as an amendment to a broader measure aimed at addressing the heroin and opioid-addiction epidemic, failed largely along party lines. Democrats argued the funding is needed given the severity of the crisis that claimed nearly 47,000 lives in 2014. Republicans said there is already funding available in this year’s budget to pay for new programs in the bill.
Passage of the amendment required 60 votes, but only four Republicans joined 44 Democrats in support. Meanwhile, 47 Republicans voted against it.
“I’m disappointed — not surprised, but disappointed,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who proposed the amendment. After thanking the supporters, she questioned what it would take for most Republicans to provide needed funding. “How many more people have to die before we’re willing to provide the resources necessary to fight this epidemic?” she asked.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., the main sponsor of the underlying bill, said that the failure to include additional funding would weaken a strong comprehensive effort to reduce opioid addiction in the nation. He said that Congress had provided substantially more for other public health epidemics such as Swine Flu and Ebola, and that the $600 million could be paid for by a small tax on pharmaceutical manufacturers of opioid pain medications that have fueled the crisis.
“Rather than allow this (initiative) to be expedited out there what we’ve done is to protect the pharmaceutical industry from having to pay for any part of the solution,” Whitehouse said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said there is $400 million in the fiscal 2016 budget to combat opioid abuse that can be used now and further funding needs can be addressed during this year’s budget process.
“These funds are still available, and we will have more opportunities to address funding through the appropriations process this spring,” said McConnell.
The Senate is continuing to debate the underlying bill that among other things would: increase education and awareness about the misuse of prescription opioids; expand the availability of medication-assisted treatment, including in criminal justice settings; support treatment as an alternative to incarceration; train and equip first responders on the use of the opioid overdose-reversal drug naloxone; support emergency services in rural areas; and provide recovery support services.
Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., spoke in favor of the bill Wednesday as well as the emergency funding proposed by Shaheen.
“Congress must step up and respond with leadership and resources,” he said.
Markey noted that more than 1,300 Massachusetts residents died in 2014 from drug overdoses — more than the number who died from gun violence or automobile accidents combined.
“America is drowning in a tsunami of heroin and prescription drug addiction that we must stop before it drowns any more families and communities,” he said.
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