Cantwell Provisions to Combat Opioid Epidemic, Hold Manufacturers Accountable for Negligence, Pass U.S. Senate

Nearly 700 Washingtonians died of opioid or heroin overdoses in 2016; more than 300,000 Americans have died since 2000. On Monday, provisions introduced by U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) to combat the opioid epidemic and hold drug manufacturers accountable for negligent and misleading distribution practices passed the U.S. Senate as part of the bipartisan Opioid Crisis Response Act (OCRA) by a vote of 99-1. 

“From Port Angeles to Spokane, I guarantee you I’ve heard about this problem, seen how our communities are struggling, and this is the very help they’ve been asking for,” Cantwell said. “They want new tools, they want better solutions, and they want us to join the fight against drug manufacturers who push this out… so that our law enforcement can cut down on the huge amount of opioids streaming into our community.” 

The legislation passed by the Senate includes provisions from Cantwell’s Comprehensive Addiction Reform, Education and Safety (CARES) Act, introduced in February with Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and supported by a bipartisan group of 39 state and territory Attorneys General, to increase penalties on opioid manufacturers who fail to take reasonable steps to prevent their drugs from entering the black market. 

“We need to do something now to make sure that opioid manufacturers follow the laws that are already on the books,” Cantwell said. “Today, this legislation takes a major step forward by including penalties for negligent opioid distribution strong enough to serve as a deterrent to those manufacturers.” 

The legislation also contains several other priorities for Cantwell that would: 

Crack Down on Illegal Drug Distribution: 

  • Increases civil penalties on manufacturers and distributors of opioids that fail to report suspicious orders for opioids or fail to maintain effective controls against diversion of opioids by ten times, from $10,000 to $100,000; 
  • Increases criminal penalties for failing to maintain effective controls against diversion of opioids from $250,000 to $500,000; 
  • Authorizes grants to state law enforcement agencies to help locate and investigate illegal distribution of opioids, heroin, fentanyl or carfentanil; 
  • Authorizes $280 million for the High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program (HIDTA), which provides assistance and coordination between federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies whose jurisdictions are in major drug-trafficking areas throughout the country. 

Increase Funding and Resources for Opioid Treatment: 

  • Provides permanent authority for qualified physicians to provide Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) for up to 275 patients; 
  • Expands the ability of health providers to use telehealth services to treat people with opioid use disorder; 
  • Authorizes $75 million for the Drug Court Program, which has helped reduce substance abuse and criminal recidivism among non-violent offenders; 
  • Authorizes $46 million a year to help prevent fatal overdoses and train first responders about safe practices for dealing with fentanyl and carfentanil to protect them from exposure to these deadly drugs. 

Support New Research and Treatment Alternatives:

  • Authorizes $5 million a year to support hospitals and other acute care facilities that manage pain with alternatives to opioids; 
  • Requires the study of the impact of federal and state laws limiting the length, quantity, or dosage of prescription opioids; 
  • Reauthorizes the State Targeted Response (STR) grants, originally funded in the 21st Century Cares Act, which have provided more than $23 million to Washington state for opioid treatment and prevention programs. 

Throughout the United States, opioid sales nearly quadrupled between 1999 and 2014, and by 2012, 259 million opioid prescriptions were being written each year. The massive surge in opioid consumption has also led to increased usage of heroin, with studies showing that nearly 75 percent of new heroin users become addicted by using prescription opioids. 

The resulting opioid and heroin epidemic has devastated communities across the country. Since 2000, more than 300,000 Americans have died from opioid or heroin overdoses. One hundred forty-five people fatally overdose on opioids or heroin each day, and nearly 700 Washingtonians and 42,000 Americans died of an opioids overdose in 2016 alone. The epidemic also has a significant economic impact, costing the United States at least $78 billion every year. 

Today’s passage of the Opioid Crisis Response Act comes as Cantwell continues her leadership in the fight against the opioid crisis. In December of 2016, Cantwell supported the 21st Century Cures Act, which provided over $1 billion in new federal funds to combat the opioid epidemic, including more than $23 million in funding for Washington state over two years. In February 2018, Cantwell introduced the CARES Act, to hold opioid manufacturers accountable for misleading advertising and negligent distribution practices. Later that month, Cantwell joined a bipartisan group of colleagues to introduce CARA 2.0, a comprehensive bill to increase funding for programs providing opioid education, treatment, and recovery. Cantwell has also been a fierce defender of the Medicaid program and Washington state’s successful Medicaid expansion, which has opened up substance abuse treatment to more than 30,000 Washingtonians. 

After passing today in the Senate, the legislation now moves on to conference committee with the House of Representatives.