On Senate Floor, Portman Highlights Ohio Progress in Fight Against Opioid Crisis and Human Trafficking

March 6, 2019 | Press Releases

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Yesterday, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) delivered remarks on the Senate floor highlighting some of the progress that is being made in Ohio to combat the opioid crisis and human trafficking, and how some of his legislative priorities like his Comprehensive Addiction & Recovery Act (CARA), the 21st Century CURES Act, the STOP Act, and SESTA are helping facilitate that progress

Transcript of his remarks can be found below and a video can be found here


“I’ve come to the floor of the Senate today to talk about the opioid crisis, to talk about what’s happening out there in our communities and how some of our federal legislation is working.  To talk about some good news, which is some improvement in terms of the overdose deaths that we’ve seen in this country, but also a warning about the fact that as we’re making progress finally on the opioid crisis, we’re also seeing other drugs like pure crystal meth coming from Mexico and other drugs begin to take hold in our communities. Let me start, if I could, by talking a little about what the opioid crisis has been and what we’re doing to address it. 

“You will recall that the last data we had, which was for 2017, over 70,000 Americans lost their lives to overdoses. The number one drug and the number one killer has been fentanyl, which is a synthetic opioid that about four or five years ago hit our communities hard. Year after year, for seven or eight years now, we have seen increases every single year in the number of people who die from overdoses, which is one way to measure it.  Another way to measure it is just the number of people addicted. That’s a harder figure to find, but that has also increased year to year. It is devastating communities. The number one cause of death in my home state of Ohio is opioid overdoses. Among Americans under 50 it is the number one cause of death in America now. It also has had so many other impacts on our health system, on our criminal justice system. Go to the emergency rooms, look at our jails that are filled with people whose crimes relate somehow to opioids. Often these are property crimes, people doing something to get the money to pay for their drugs. 

“Look at the impact that it’s had on our families. The foster care system is overwhelmed. I was with some juvenile court judges just today from Ohio who were telling me they can’t find sponsors, they can’t find foster parents because the system is just overrun with kids whose parents are addicted to opioids and they cannot go home but they need a loving family. It’s impacted our economy because so many people are now out of work all together, aren’t even looking for work, don’t even show up on the unemployment numbers. If you look at the labor force participation rate being so low, in other words, the number of people working, the unemployment today would not be four percent, it would be more like eight percent if you just went back to a normal level. And a lot of that, based on studies done by the Department of Labor, the Brookings Institution and others, shows that this is the opioid crisis that’s driving that. It has impacted us in so many ways. 

“Here’s the exciting news. After seven or eight years of increases, every year in the number of people whose hopes are lost, whose lives are lost, we’re seeing in the end of 2017 and end of 2018, the initial numbers that we have some improvement. Now, it starts from an unacceptably high number. So this is not something that we should start congratulating ourselves about, but it is much better finally to see this trend start to reverse. Preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and their National Center for Health Statistics points to a promising, although very modest, downturn. They measured drug overdose deaths in 12 month periods ending in any given month. The last data we have regarding predicted deaths was between September 2017 and March 2018. And during that time period we saw deaths fall from about 73,000 Americans to 71,000 Americans. So, again, still a crisis that we face as a country, but showing that in many states and those states include Ohio, we’re beginning to see a little progress. Again, this follows a time period where we saw a big increase due to this fentanyl, the synthetic drug that is 50 times more powerful than heroin that is causing so many of these overdoses. In fact, in my view, we were beginning to make progress through some federal, state, and local policies, and also the innovative work of the nonprofits who were working in our communities. We had begun to see progress on treatment, prevention, recovery, and providing more Narcan. And then this influx hit us of fentanyl and overwhelmed the system. Now, we are beginning to see, even with the fentanyl still out there, that we’re beginning to make progress. 

“In Ohio, fentanyl hit our state particularly hard. We had a record 4,800 overdose deaths in 2017, which is a 20 percent jump over the 2016 total. So it has been tough for eight years in a row. What I can report today is that now we are seeing a little progress. We’ve seen a 21 percent drop in overdose deaths in the first half of 2018. Again, we’re not getting all the numbers yet for 2018. When we have all of those, I’ll come back to the floor and talk about it. That first half of 2018, we’re getting the numbers in now and it’s about a 20 percent drop. That’s the biggest drop in the nation, by the way, during the period from July 2017 to June 2018, according to the Center for Disease Control. So that’s good because Ohio has been in the middle of this. Other than West Virginia, we probably had the highest number of overdose deaths on average in the last several years. Separately the preliminary data from the Ohio Department of Health shows a 34 percent decrease in overdose deaths from January to June 2018. Again, those first six months we have seen a little decrease finally. 34 percent. That’s progress, again, from a high starting point. 

“But I believe we’re heading in the right direction and some people ask me, are we ever going to see the end of this crisis? I’ve always said yes. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel because we know what we need to do. We need to have better education and prevention programs to keep people from falling into addiction in the first place. We need to stop the overprescribing from our doctors so that people aren’t inadvertently because of an accident or an injury taking prescription pain pills and then becoming addicted and then moving to heroin and fentanyl and so on and often to overdoses. We need to do much more in terms of treatment and getting people into longer-term recovery because we know initial treatment is important, in fact essential to getting people through the process of coming out of their addiction and they’ve got to go through a painful process. And then go into a treatment program. And then what we found is longer-term recovery programs are key to people’s success, getting back on their feet, getting back to their families, getting back to work. 

“So one of the reasons we’ve made progress is because, as I said earlier, at every level of government there’s been movement. There’s been progress made. Here in Washington, in the Congress, we have done things that are historic, meaning that we’ve never before, as an example, funded recovery until just a few years ago. We’ve never had this much focus on providing the funds for Narcan to be able to help our first responders and others to be able to use this miracle drug, to reverse the effects of an overdose. We have never spent so much money on prevention and education. And of course we’ve never spent so much money on treatment. 

“Several years ago some of us came together knowing this crisis was building and said how do we create legislation here in Washington that can make a difference. Some said it’s not really a federal role. My view was the federal government has a big role here because it’s a national emergency, a national crisis but it ought to be to take the best information from around the country, find out what the best practices are, and then help the states by providing funding to leverage additional funding at the local level, the state level, and that was called a Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act. We spent three or four years putting it together. We had five conferences here in Washington. Senator Whitehouse on the other side of the aisle and I were the coauthors of that legislation. 

“The first year we got some money from Congress, $181 million to support these programs. Again treatment programs, education programs, treatment and recovery programs together. Narcan for our first responders. $181 million. That next fiscal year we got $267 million to fund the same programs. The next year, 2018 $608 million and 2019, this year, $647 million. So we’ve increased the funding and increased the commitment. Why? Because it’s working. Because we can all go home now and look at our states and see where some of this funding is going and show that through innovation, through doing things differently we’re beginning to make a difference. 

“Let me give you the best example, perhaps, that I see around the country. And that is instead of saving someone’s life with Narcan and having that person overdose again and again and sometimes again and again, first responders will tell you they find this frustrating. They see the same people again and again and not finding a route to success. You want to get these people into treatment. So what we have funded through CARA, the Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act, is these rapid response teams where when somebody overdoses from Narcan, they just don’t go back home or go back to the old community or the old gang. Instead somebody visits. It’s a law enforcement officer. It’s a social worker, it’s a treatment provider. And they knock on the door and say we want to get you into treatment. We want to help you. We’re here to help. We’re not here to arrest you. We’re here to help you. 

“The success rate is phenomenal. Maybe greater than you would think. Because a lot of these people, particularly right after overdosing and having Narcan applied have seen their life flash before their eyes. And they are looking for some help and probably eight out of 10 people are not getting into treatment so they’re looking for an avenue to treatment. And some places in Ohio there’s as much as an 80 percent success rate, getting those people who are at virtually zero percent success rate before, into treatment programs. Again, they have to be the right programs and you have to have that longer-term recovery in order to ensure success but that’s beginning to turn the tide. Programs like that. 

“Over the past several months, I’ve been around the state of Ohio as I’ve done the last several years and met with local leaders to find out what’s really going on, how is the money being spent. A couple of weeks ago I met local leaders and participants in the Pathways Achieving Recovery by Choice program. It’s a voluntary recovery program for incarcerated women with substance abuse disorders. And many with co-occurring mental health issues as well. These are women behind bars who volunteer to go into this program. All of them are numerous repeat offenders. In other words, these are women whose chances of ending back in the system after they get out is extremely high. The program director says it’s virtually 100 percent because they’ve been arrested numerous times and they keep coming back again and again into the system. This program, that I got to see, received a grant from the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, received a grant of $881,000 to have this program not just last one year but last several years. They put it in place. They’re providing for these women treatment and recovery services, teaching them not just about how to avoid going back to the old neighborhood and getting back in trouble again but also how to establish their lives in a productive way, going back to work, getting back with their families. 

“It was great to hear from Dr. Patrice Palmer who runs the program and also the Franklin County Commissioner Marilyn Brown, Sheriff Dallas Baldwin, and others about how this is helping residents get what they need, the treatment and recovery services, the housing they need, but most importantly to get them to rebuild their lives and not come back into the system. I mentioned earlier the recidivism rate is virtually 100 percent for this group. This program has got that down to 20 percent. In other words, 80 percent of these women have gotten out, gotten into the programs they need, gotten back on their feet, gotten jobs, found an apartment. 80 percent of them are back in our communities as productive citizens. That to me is what this is all about. 

“I spoke to a number of the participants in the program, and they were optimistic because it’s a very upbeat program. I was asked to give a quote and gave a Winston Churchill quote about how when you fall down, the most important thing is getting back up. That’s more important than success without having failures. I talked about the fact that I’ve been to a lot of programs around the state and have seen where people find for the first time in their lives, in many cases, the kind of meaning in their life and the kind of hope for the future that lets them get back on track. I talked to Anita Davidson, she’s a repeat offender. Anita said what all the women said. She doesn’t want to go back to jail. She doesn’t want to keep living this life. She’s been in and out of jail many times but Pathways has helped her change her thinking. That’s what it’s all about, changing the thinking and therefore changing lives and saving lives. 

“Earlier this year I met with law enforcement, local officials and members of the Hamilton County Heroin Coalition to find out how they’re using these federal funds. I’m here talking to my colleagues, Republican and Democrat alike, saying we need more money. They want to know where it’s going. Is it working? Well, I just talked about one that’s working in Columbus. It’s also working in Hamilton County, which is the Cincinnati area. They’ve received federal funding through the CARA legislation and also the 21st Century CURES law, again something this Congress passed on a bipartisan basis. The county’s received a $500,000 CARA grant from innovative program to help those with distance abuse and mental health disorder get help instead of going through the criminal justice system. They also got $50,000 for a prevention grant for a group called PreventionFirst! which is a group that I founded more than 20 years ago, about 25 years ago in Cincinnati, that is still there helping to prevent drug abuse. They’re doing a good job. 

“They’ve also received money through the 21st Century CURES Act. In fact, in the last two years, Ohio has received $26 million a year from the CURES legislation that goes straight to the state. Then the state decides how it’s given to good groups and organizations around the state. So the CURES funding and CARA funding, as I see it, is working. It’s expanding medicated assisted treatment. It’s helping first responders, these are our EMS and our firefighters who are out there trying to help to save lives. They need the training on Narcan and the funding. It’s also helped with regard to closing the gaps for those who are seeking treatment. I mentioned earlier the gap of Narcan being applied and somebody getting into treatment. There’s also a gap unfortunately between people in treatment and getting into longer-term recovery. Often there’s a waiting period and people fall back into their addiction. These gaps can be closed and when they are and it’s a comprehensive, seamless program, the results are amazing. 

“During our meeting in Hamilton County, Newtown, Ohio Police Chief Tom Synan told me that fentanyl continues to be the deadliest drug in greater Cincinnati and he wants us to implement quickly two pieces of legislation. One is called the STOP Act which this Congress passed to keep fentanyl from flowing freely into our communities. In August 2016 we had 174 overdoses in Ohio in six days. 174 in six days. It is what they called a bad batch. It was fentanyl being mixed with heroin. That drew national attention to the crisis. That’s when we started working on the STOP Act which is to say let’s stop this stuff from coming in through the United States mail system which is where most of it comes from China. We passed that legislation and it’s helping because it requires the Postal Service to actually screen for these packages to get the information to know what’s a suspect package to help Customs and Border Protection to pull these packages off and begin to pull some of these drugs out of our communities, which at a minimum increases the cost of this drug on the street, which is important.

“We also know that other legislation -- I see my colleague Sherrod Brown is on the floor today. The INTERDICT Act helps because it gives those same people more funding for the screening they need. Once they’ve identified a package that’s suspect. That combination is making a difference right now. President Trump signed that law in October last year after about two years of hard work by the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. It’s making a difference. But as Tom Synan said, this police chief, we need to implement it and quickly. I spoke today to the Secretary of Homeland Security. She talked about the STOP Act. She talked about the INTERDICT act. She wants to push those quickly and we need to because those will continue to make a difference. But they’re starting to work and that’s part of the reason we’re seeing some progress. 

“I recently toured the jail in Butler County, Ohio to see firsthand how they’re using their federal funding. They received about $800,000 in a CARA grant. I met with Scott Rasmus, the Executive Director of Butler County Mental Health and Recovery Services Board, Sheriff Jones there and other community leaders about how they’re using this funding to close the gaps that often occur with treatment. Again, they’re doing what I talked about earlier, these rapid response teams to ensure they’re saving people’s lives with Narcan but getting them into a treatment program that works with them. In January I was in Portsmouth, Ohio, one of the hardest hit areas of our state. Portsmouth, Ohio has been the subject of a lot of attention by the media, a lot of attention because they were hit so hard by the heroin crisis that followed the prescription drug crisis. I met there with law enforcement local officials from Adams County, Lawrence County, and Scioto County. They received $525,000 in grants from the CURES act and they’re using it to help address every aspect of addiction, including the gaps and treatment I talked about. They funded a reentry project, the Hughes Reentry Project, that provides longer-term assistance through outpatient services, assisted housing, working with the community justice center to close the gaps that’s occurring when people get out of prison and get into programs that will help them avoid getting into prison again. 

“Lastly, I want to highlight a recent visit I made to the Oasis House in Dayton, Ohio. It provides a supportive environment and recovery services for women who were trafficked and abused, helping them get on their feet through counseling, drug treatment, or other social services. I was there last month and had the opportunity to visit with the women. It’s a Christian nonprofit organization, a faith-based group that runs these safe houses. Most of these women are victims of human trafficking. These women are often homeless. Every single one of them I talked to was also an addict or a recovering addict. They have been through a lot, a lot of trauma. And they need the help. But the good news is they’re getting the help and there is hope. 

“In my visit to the safe house, I met these incredibly courageous women who have taken these steps voluntarily to get their lives back together using faith, using in some cases treatment programs, funding they’re getting is coming through the Montgomery County ADAMHS board. And that funding comes from the CARA legislation and the CURES legislation. So again seeing in action what is actually happening on the ground gives me hope that we’re beginning to make progress. I met with the safe house mom. She’s the resident mother, as she calls herself, of this house. She’s there to take care of concerns that the women have. She’s a recovering addict herself. She’s a domestic violence survivor. Oasis House saved her life. And now she’s giving back by helping current Oasis clients be able to help save their lives. I want to congratulate Cheryl Oliver, their Executive Director for all the great work they’re doing and the bravery of these young women was inspiring and again great to see firsthand how this is making a difference in their lives. 

“We’ve recently seen this issue of trafficking arise in connection with a sex trafficking ring in Florida. We’re told that illicit spas, like those in Florida that you’ve probably heard about in the media in the last week or so, can sometimes be hubs of human trafficking. Where women, often imported from foreign countries, are brought into America. They are often induced through fraud, fear, or some other type of coercion to perform sex acts for money, and that’s what the investigators believe happened here. They believe that the women in these spas were from foreign countries and that they were inducted into this through coercion. There’s more information coming out. They don’t have all the details yet. The investigation continues. But they suspect the managers at these day spas were trafficking these women and, therefore, they’ve arrested the owners in several of these day spas. It is another disturbing reminder that human trafficking continues to exist right here in this country, in this century. We must stay vigilant in our efforts to combat this horrific crime. 

“In the last eight years here in the Senate, it has been one of our top priorities to pass legislation to combat human trafficking. We have passed bills into law to get better data on sex trafficking in the U.S., to ensure that victims of sex trafficking are treated as victims and not as criminals, to increase federal penalties on johns and to enact a zero tolerance policy on human trafficking in government contracts. I’m proud to say that with Senator Blumenthal, we cofounded and co-chair the human trafficking caucus here. Started off with a couple members. Now we have a couple dozen members of this body who work day in and day out to say, how can we do more to help. One thing we found through our research was that online sex trafficking is growing dramatically and is one reason why you see the increase in sex trafficking here in this country and around the world. After 18 months of investigation, particularly into Backpage, which was the commercial site that had probably three-quarters of the trafficking on it, we passed a law called SESTA that ensures these websites that knowingly engage, facilitate, or promote sex trafficking are held accountable for what happens on their platforms. About time. We should have done it a long time ago. 

“Having passed that legislation, Backpage is now shut down and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children report to us that probably about two-thirds of these online websites that sell women and children online have now been discontinued. Again, we haven’t solved the problem. It’s still very much out there. Other websites will crop up on the dark web as well. But we have made progress by focusing on the issue in a bipartisan way. Numerous websites have been shut down, and as we have been told by the experts -- and I’ll quote the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children – ‘Since the enactment of SESTA and the government seizure of Backpage, there has been a major disruption in the online marketplace.’ 

“As we talked earlier, whether it is the SESTA legislation that is now working, whether it’s the CARA legislation and the CURES legislation on the opioid crisis, we are making a difference and the funding that has been provided by this body and by the House, after careful research to figure out what works, what doesn’t work, spending on evidence based programs is working. We cannot take our eye off the ball. We cannot stop now. If we do, we’ll just see this problem crop up in different ways. I mentioned that as we’re making progress on opioids, law enforcement and those who are in the trenches -- treatment providers are talking about the fact that other drugs are beginning to rise, particularly crystal meth. So we can’t stop. We have to continue it. 

“These programs are making a difference, helping people get their lives back on track, helping to save their lives. The federal government continues to have a role here to be better partners in this effort with states, with local governments, with nonprofits who are out there doing their best. And ultimately with our families, because that’s what this is all about, giving people hope and saving lives.”