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Rebecca Farley

Director, Policy & Advocacy, National Council for Behavioral Health

Senate Caucus Holds Hearing on Heroin and Opioid Abuse

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Yesterday, the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control Committee held a hearing on prescription drug abuse and the role it plays in the increased use of heroin in the U.S. Caucus members also examined ways the federal government can help reduce opioid abuse. This discussion is one in a series of recent hearings on Capitol Hill about opiate addiction, following reports earlier this year that efforts to stop prescription-drug abuse have resulted in a heroin boom.

Officials from the Office of National Drug Control Policy, National Institute on Drug Abuse and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration testified at the hearing, along with Dr. Andrew Kolodny, Chief Medical Officer of Phoenix House, a National Council member.

Senators, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), provided statements about the growing epidemic of prescription drug abuse leading to heroin abuse in their states.  Each cited statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regarding the rising tide of deaths and overdose due to prescription drug abuse. Two of the witnesses, Dr. Nora D. Volkow and Dr. Kolodny, as well as Chairwoman Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), noted that the rise in heroin addiction has paralleled the increase in overall prescriptions for opioid based pain killers for choric conditions.

Dr. Kolodny went on to note that CDC cites the cause of the opioid abuse crisis as the increase in availability of opioid prescriptions. He testified that the current epidemic is the fault of the exaggerated benefits and minimalized risk of long-term opioid use for chronic pain in the medical community. While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) limits doctors in how many prescriptions they can write for medical assisted treatments like buprenorphine (caps of 30 patients in the first year and then 100 patients per year thereafter), there are no limits to how many patients a physician can write opioid prescriptions for.  This, he said, has led to the so-called pill mills.

Additional themes from senators and witnesses included the need for interstate prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMP), access to Naloxone, medication assisted treatment options for addiction, Good Samaritan Laws, and the misperception about the utility of opioid prescriptions for chronic pain. Additional information is available here.

Chart: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention