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Congress Considers Next Steps in Fight Against Opioids

Rog Cogswell / Creative Commons

Last year a bipartisan group in Congress passed a sweeping law to address the opioid crisis. But the opioid epidemic continues to rage in states like Virginia and there’s a new Congress, yet the crisis isn’t talked about much at the Capitol these days.

Some lawmakers in the Commonwealth want that to change.

The bipartisan opioid law that President Trump signed last year aims to train medical professionals so they don’t over prescribe opioids. It also seeks to help states like Virginia, Maryland and even West Virginia work together so patients don’t hop across state lines to get more pills.

But tens of thousands of Americans continue to overdose annually. Still, many lawmakers are in a holding pattern.  “I think part of its that we – not that we did all that’s possible – but we did an awful lot of what occurred to us to do," Northern Virginia Congressman Don Beyer admits, "the low-hanging fruit legislatively and in terms of investments happening.”

Still, Beyer’s party now controls the House. And he says just driving around in his Northern Virginia district you see signs that the epidemic is still on the minds of many people in his community. “You see purple signs everywhere and purple ribbons, purple lights on the front porches. So a lot of people in many different ways in the community are trying to address the opioid crisis.”

Republican Morgan Griffith’s Southwestern district has been hit hard by the opioid crisis, yet he’s also in a holding pattern.  “We passed some really good legislation last year in a bipartisan fashion, so I'm not I'm not going to beat up on my Democrat friends over that," Griffith says.  "Do we need to take a look at it probably next year? Yes. Because we passed it at the end of last year, we need to see what has helped, what hasn't helped, and then we need to move forward.”

While Democrats run the House, Republicans control the Senate, and the issue seems to be getting even less attention in that chamber. But even if he’s not in a rush to pass new legislation to address the epidemic this year, Griffith does want Congress to fund or incentivize more in-resident treatment centers.  There remain only two in his district – a sprawling geography that can either take you hours to traverse. “Residential treatment is so important for so many people. Everybody has a different formula for success and kicking the habit and beating the addiction, but I think most experts would agree that for a lot of people, residential treatment is necessary and helpful."

Freshman Republican Ben Cline argues the federal government is needed to provide more resources to spots like his district that includes much of the Shenandoah Valley, as well as Roanoke and Lynchburg. “It's a concern for me and for my district," Cline says, "and we’ll continue to try and keep the profile raised about the need to provide resources to the states and local governments to address it.”  

But Eastern Virginia Republican Congressman Rob Wittman says it’s not all about federal money. He says a part of the law Congress passed last year will take years to be realized.   “In many instances, we are lacking the proper number of behavioral and mental health professionals. So even if you have the money, if you don't have the number of professionals there, it's hard to do those things," Wittman says.  "So another element of this, as you know, that's part of the legislation is to encourage schools to actively recruit students to go into these disciplines, to get more degree holders coming out of these programs and getting them into the communities.”

And Wittman says no local or federal officials should start to get complacent as they wait for last year’s law to fully take root.    “The problems are still significant. If we look at the number of opioid deaths in Virginia, and compare them to the high in 2016, we're on track to possibly exceed that high level in 2016. So there's still issues out there.”

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.