MD Congressmen Split Over Opioids | WYPR

MD Congressmen Split Over Opioids

Jul 10, 2018

Maryland Congressmen (l. to r.) Elijah Cummings, Dutch Ruppersberger and Andy Harris
Credit Official Portraits

The House of Representatives took up more than seventy opioid related bills last month; some dealing with safely disposing of old pills, others trying to ensure the government has the best data on the crisis and still others seeking to prevent drugs from flowing in through the nation’s many points of entry, south and north.

And as you might expect, Democrats and Republicans, some locked in tight re-election contests, have been clamoring to get their bills voted on. So, does that mean it’s all just political theater?

Not according to Maryland’s lone Republican Congressman, Andy Harris.

"Well, look from the votes you can see. There’s overwhelming bipartisan support to solve this opioid issue," he said. "So to claim somehow that this is politicized when there’s huge bipartisan margins for these bills, is on the surface, ridiculous."

Some Democrats and health experts say the GOP lead effort fell short because it  didn’t allocate any new funds for the crisis, but Harris – a doctor by training – disagrees.

"I think it’s just not true," he said. "The fact of the matter is, you need good policy and then you need the money to back it up. Money without good policy doesn’t get you results."

He calls it "a very complicated situation."

"You have to get this policy right because honestly, it was policy that was wrong that was part of the problem that got us into this mess," he said.

This year Republican leaders allocated $6 billion to the opioid epidemic, but many health experts say it’s pennies compared to what’s needed.

Baltimore Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings, who has teamed up with Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren on a bill to infuse a lot of money into the crisis, says their bill would allocate $100 billion over a decade to the crisis. Cummings says that’s essential and that the GOP is merely nibbling around the edges.

"They would know if they did a little bit of research that only one in ten people now are getting the treatment that they need; one in ten," he said. "It just goes to show you with that attitude the problem is only going to get worse. We’re getting ready to reach a tsunami with regard to not only people dying but people using the drugs."

Cummings accuses Republicans of spending the much needed resources for this crisis on their $1.5 trillion tax cut package last year.

"If they can blow a $1.5 trillion hole in the deficit to get rich people more money, they ought to be able to spend 100 billion dollars over ten years to make a difference in the lives of so many people," he argued.

Cummings says Republican leaders are only getting the nation farther behind on addressing the most pressing issue of our day – one that’s claiming as many lives a year as were lost in the entire Vietnam War.

"I think it’s unfortunate and it shows they are completely out of sync with the magnitude of this problem," he said. "We do need a lot more funding. In 2015 it was estimated that the opioid problem was costing America $500 billion in that one year."

Harris says Cummings is putting the cart before the horse. He says this is a time to give localities flexibility and to study the best practices so Congress actually knows what the price tag will eventually be.

"Until you devise the treatment methodology that’s going to work for the greatest number of people, there is no way of knowing what this cost is going to be," he argued. "So at this stage, we obviously have to support local programs where the local communities think that they have a solution."

Meanwhile, Dutch Ruppersberger, a Democrat whose district is stretches between those of Harris and Cummings, seems to split the difference between those two. He says the bills the House passed are a start, but he’s still not sure what the final price tag will be.

"It’s a camel’s nose in the tent," he said. "If you look at the statistics in every community in our country, it’s an extremely serious problem and it’s not going be solved overnight by more money."

The Senate is expected to take up its own version of opioid legislation later this year and lawmakers hope to combine all the efforts into a bill that can make it to the president’s desk.

Whether that means spending more money or not seems to be a debate for another day.