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Week ahead: Senate panel gears up to debate opioid legislation

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will debate legislation April 24 as Congress pedals toward the Memorial Day deadline to complete its opioids package.

HELP Committee Chair Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said he sees a proposal to support the National Institutes of Health work on non-addictive painkillers as the "holy grail" for solving the epidemic.

"Developing new, non-addictive ways to treat is crucial to helping prevent people from becoming addicted to opioids while ensuring those who need relief have access to it," Alexander said following a hearing last week.

The HELP legislation—the Opioid Crisis Response Act—would also allow the Food and Drug Administration to direct drug manufacturers to package opioids for a specific time frame, for instance three or seven days. It would also support data-collection efforts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to assess and respond to infection rates from drug injection.

Several bundles of bills also aimed at curbing the opioid epidemic have been debated in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where lawmakers were more contentious than their counterparts in the upper chamber

Last week's Energy and Commerce hearing alone looked at 34 bills.

"A lot needs to be done to address this epidemic, but we should focus our time on what is most meaningful and impactful," said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), the committee's ranking Democrat. "While I support addressing this crisis through a bipartisan process, I am concerned that the sheer quantity of bills before the committee today and the chairman's extremely ambitious time frame will not leave us much time to get these policies right."

Pallone also decried the lack of a Congressional Budget Office score for the bills under consideration, which include a partial repeal on behalf of substance use disorder patients of what's known as the "IMD exclusion"—the barring of Medicaid funds from mental health institutions that have more than 16 beds; program integrity transparency measures for Medicare parts C and D; enhanced federal funding for certain Medicaid health homes for addicts; and a mandate on states to run drug management programs for people identified as at-risk for addiction.

Susannah Luthi covers health policy and politics in Congress for Modern Healthcare. Most recently, Luthi covered health reform and the Affordable Care Act exchanges for Inside Health Policy. She returned to journalism from a stint abroad exporting vanilla in Polynesia. She has a bachelor’s degree in Classics and journalism from Hillsdale College in Michigan and a master’s in professional writing from the University of Southern California.

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