June 12,2018

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Taylor Harvey (202) 224-4515

Wyden Statement at Finance Committee Markup to Consider the HEAL Act

As Prepared for Delivery

This afternoon, the Finance Committee meets to consider legislation dealing with a host of policies with respect to substance abuse. What troubles me most in this area is the extraordinary, long-running challenge of setting the right policies when it comes to painkillers.

Years ago when I was the director of the Oregon Grey Panthers, I’d get calls from the families of older people coping with pain. They’d say, “my dad is 93 years old, he’s in agony, but he can’t get a prescription because they say he’ll get addicted.”

More recently, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. If you broke a bone, came down with a bout of back pain, or had a root canal, getting a script for a bottle of opioids became routine. Millions of Americans got hooked.

Now in this room, committee members are taking a bipartisan approach to these issues. But members here have seen the Trump administration duck and bob and weave like a prize fighter when asked the simplest questions about opioids.

For example, I asked the Trump point man on opioids what responsibility the drug makers bear in the explosive growth of this epidemic, and what I heard back was a total non-answer. But regardless of that, members of this committee are going to keep at it. 

Today the committee is bringing forward several fresh policies that can make a difference. In my view, there are promising ideas dealing with some key important priorities -- helping people steer clear of addiction from the get-go, and knocking down barriers that prevent people from getting help when they need it.

For example, Senator Bennet led the way on a provision that will help root out fraud by requiring that prescriptions are sent electronically from doctors to pharmacies. It’s too easy to fake a script on old-fashioned paper and get a bottle of pills, so this amendment would make electronic prescriptions the norm in Medicare’s drug program.

Senators Brown and Stabenow have important provisions that will help make sure new mothers and infants have access to the care and treatment they need. Senator Menendez and Senator Scott worked on provisions that will help parents get treatment and find smart, safe ways to reunify families.

Since homelessness and addiction often go hand-in-hand, Senator Cardin and I have worked on a provision that’s all about uncovering innovative opportunities in Medicaid to provide housing supports and services to individuals struggling with substance use disorders including for those transitioning out of residential treatment and for those who are experiencing homelessness. And it’s important to note, it wouldn’t take a penny away from anybody’s health care.

Senators Warner, Cardin and Thune have also brought forward an important provision that would expand access to telehealth services in Medicare for older Americans struggling with substance use disorders.

These are only a few of the ideas the committee has been able to bring forward in this bipartisan package. This afternoon we’ll have an opportunity to discuss a few amendments to the package before the committee. Senator McCaskill has an amendment dealing with expanding our disclosure laws that I believe has big potential.

The Physician Payments Sunshine Act covers the ties between providers and drug makers. But there’s a whole, shadowy universe of advocacy organizations -- essentially front groups for opioid manufacturers -- that aren’t covered. In my view, it’s obvious that there ought to be sunshine brought to those relationships, too.

A handful of months ago, I don’t think anybody would have guessed that this committee would have gotten a chronic care bill signed into law, secured 10 years of CHIP funding, and passed the largest overhaul of the Child Welfare system in a generation. And now, with this opioid legislation, this committee is continuing to make real, bipartisan progress on health care.

This is going to be a first step today. There’s a lot of work to be done in conjunction with other committees and with the other body. But I want to thank Chairman Hatch for his leadership on this issue. And I also want to thank all the members of the committee who’ve contributed to this process. I look forward to continuing our work.