By Neal Goswami
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a slew of bills Friday aimed at addressing the opioid epidemic throughout the country, including two provisions authored by Vermont Rep. Peter Welch.
The legislation seeks to help states and communities increase their capacity to treat patients looking to recover from addiction and provide resources to prevent addiction and overdoses.
Welch, a Democrat, crafted two bipartisan initiatives that were included in legislation known as the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. Welch spoke in favor of the legislation on the House floor Friday after meeting earlier in the week with city, health care and law enforcement officials in Burlington.
"Vermont has been extraordinary in its efforts to attack this problem ... (but) challenges remain because we don't have enough treatment funds," Welch said in a news release.
"It is tremendous that there has been such a bipartisan coming together to sponsor practical steps that we can take," he said. "But I hope we're ready to take the next steps and actually focus on getting resources back to our communities that are doing the very challenging work at the local level."
Welch said the legislation will help local officials to better understand when, where and how overdoses are occurring. One of Welch's proposals will require the U.S. comptroller general to identify barriers to real-time reporting of drug overdose data to law enforcement agencies and solutions for eliminating them.
The second proposal authored by Welch directs an inter-agency task force created in the legislation to review, modify and update best practices for pain management and prescribing pain medication.
The task force will report information and recommendations on developing new non-opioid forms of pain relief and examine existing non-opioid alternatives that could be used instead.
The package of bills was approved by the House on Friday on a vote of 400-5. It will now head to a conference committee where House and Senate negotiators will try to reconcile differences with similar legislation passed by the Senate in March.
Welch credited Gov. Peter Shumlin's State of the State address in January 2014 for highlighting the need for a treatment-based approach to the opioid epidemic, saying "a problem acknowledged is the first step in dealing with a problem to be solved."
"Our governor devoted its entirety to the opioid epidemic in Vermont and I remember how stunned people were that a governor would take such a difficult topic and spend his entire address on it," Welch said. "I remember the reaction of many of my colleagues here who said, "Peter, isn't that dangerous? You're talking about something that's not great for the reputation of the state.'"
He added, "What in fact was great for the reputation of the state was that our governor and our leaders acknowledged the existence of a problem that was creating heartbreak and heartache in all of our communities."
Welch said he was hoping to send a message to Congress "that we've got to send some funds back" to local communities to help.
"Some of the taxes that they sent to us, we've got to send back to them," he said. "That's why I, among others, are supporting an emergency appropriation of $600 million. That would help quite a bit."