By Congressman Elijah Cummings

On June 19, our House Oversight and Reform Committee held its third hearing of 2019 on the adequacy of the federal government’s response to America’s ongoing opioid epidemic.  As we expected, the testimony of Dr. Susan R. Bailey, President-Elect of the American Medical Association, and our other experts was compelling.

“The nation’s epidemic of opioid-related overdoses and deaths continues to worsen,” Dr. Bailey informed us.  “More than two million people in the United States have Opioid Use Disorder …, and of the 70,237 drug overdose deaths in 2017, 68 percent (47,600) were from opioid-related causes.”

It appears, moreover, that although the final mortality statistics for 2018 are not yet available, the opioid death toll remained far too high.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (MD.-7) . (Courtesy Photo)

Here in Maryland, as well as nationally, the public health challenge is clear. Our state government reported in May that 2,114 Marylanders died from opioid-related causes in 2018, the second consecutive year in which these fatalities reached that unacceptable level.

The human tragedies reflected in these deadly statistics demand a more comprehensive and effective public health response.  They are compounded. moreover, by a second harsh, yet potentially promising, reality.

Most, if not all, of these lost lives could have been saved.

The expert witnesses at our June 19 hearing uniformly confirmed that clinical interventions like Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) work.

Yet, the evidence also reflects the fact that, last year, only 10.8 percent of the adults afflicted with this dangerous and often deadly disorder received specialty treatment for their disease – and only 36 percent of specialty treatment facilities offered any form of FDA-approved medication for opioid use disorder.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine warned earlier this year that “efforts to date have made no real headway in stemming this crisis, in large part because tools that already exist—like evidence-based medications—are not being deployed to maximum impact.”

Although the Congress has undertaken some actions in response to this public health crisis, the medical experts attest – and I agree – that we have failed to act with the urgency that this crisis demands.  Meanwhile, nearly 200 Americans continue to die every single day.

We have the ability to overcome this carnage being inflicted upon the American people – but only if we significantly expand, carefully tailor and sustain the federal government’s response.  Toward this end, the Congress should follow the assessment and advice of a national leader in fighting the epidemic, Baltimore City’s former Health Commissioner, Dr. Leana Wen.

“Addiction is a [chronic] disease,” Dr. Wen has informed us. “Treatment for that disease exists, and it works…, [but] the infrastructure needed to treat addiction as a chronic ailment that it is does not exist.”

“More than anything else,” Dr. Wen has advised us, “what is required … is an investment of resources.”

In both the last Congress and currently, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and I have taken Dr. Wen’s advice to heart.  Now, a growing number of our colleagues on Capitol Hill are doing the same.

We have introduced proposed federal legislation that will begin to provide the sustained federal resources needed by local and state health providers if we are to respond to the opioid crisis like the critical public health emergency it has become.

Fortunately, our nation has a successful model that is guiding us as to how best to defeat this epidemic in an effective, efficient and humane way.

Our proposed Comprehensive Addiction Resources Emergency (CARE) Act (H.R. 2569 / S. 1365), first introduced last year and reintroduced in May, is modeled directly on the bipartisan Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act that was enacted nearly 30 years ago to support the federal investments and local decision-making needed to successfully tackle the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Now, confronted with a comparable threat to our nation, it is time for the Congress and President to come together, put politics aside, and provide adequate and sustained funding to combat the opioid epidemic.

Our proposed federal legislation would provide $100 billion over the next ten years, targeting a major share of these new resources directly to our nation’s hardest hit communities as they mobilize to provide the medically-assisted treatment that has been shown to work.

Tragically, as I have noted, some of those communities are close to home. More than one-third of Maryland’s opioid-related deaths last year occurred in Baltimore City. Nearly another one-third occurred in nearby Baltimore and Anne Arundel Counties.

Although all of the current 117 House and Senate co-sponsors of our CARE Act are Democrats, I am cautiously optimistic that my Republican colleagues will come to support our proposal. After all, this epidemic is devastating communities in red states, blue states, and purple states. It is terrorizing families that are wealthy, poor, and everywhere in between.

My more conservative colleagues will also come to realize that our proposed federal funding is more than justified in federal budgetary terms: a $10 billion annual investment to combat an epidemic that the President’s own economic council concluded cost our nation more than $500 billion in 2015 alone.

The CARE Act has been endorsed by more than 200 organizations, including the American Medical Association, the American Society of Addiction Medicine, the American Psychological Association, and National Nurses United.

Now, the Congress and President should do so as well.

Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United State House of Representatives.  He is Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Afro-American Newspapers.