On Senate Floor Discussing Opioid Epidemic, Portman Praises Additional $6 Billion in Opioid Funding, Calls on Senate to Pass the Bipartisan STOP Act
WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) delivered remarks on the Senate floor today urging his colleagues to pass the bipartisan budget agreement that includes an additional $6 billion for opioid funding over two years and to act on the bipartisan Synthetics Trafficking & Overdose Prevention (STOP) Act, legislation designed to help stop dangerous drugs such as heroin, fentanyl and carfentanil from being shipped through our borders to drug traffickers here in the United States. The speech follows last month’s shocking, bipartisan Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) report, which details how drug traffickers exploit vulnerabilities in our international mail system to easily ship synthetic drugs like fentanyl, which is now killing more Ohioans than heroin, from China into the United States though the U.S. Postal Service.
Transcript of his speech can be found below and a video can be found here.
“I want to talk about another topic, Mr. President, that is not a happy topic. It's also in the news these days, as is the growing economy and the increased jobs and the benefits of the tax reform, but this is news that you also see on the front pages and you will see on the nightly news of your local TV station, but it's unfortunate news, and that is about the fact that we still have this growing epidemic of drug use in this country connected to opioids. This is something that has grown over time. It kind of started with prescription drug use that grew pretty dramatically back in the 2000s, and then it became heroin. Probably three or four years ago, you began to see people shift from the heroin to other forms of opioids that are called synthetic opioids like fentanyl or carfentanil. Unfortunately, this issue has gripped our country, and my state in particular.
“Ohio is one of the states that has been hardest hit. We have more people addicted, we have more people who are overdosing from these drugs. We have more people who are dying because of the overdoses than ever before. Last year, in 2017, we had more overdose deaths than we had in 2016. I think we have good ideas to begin to turn the tide, and this Congress has started to work on that, and I applaud Congress for that, and we're beginning to see some of those programs work, but we have got a long way to go. And one reason that I think that the legislation we are going to vote on later today is so important is that it provides more funding to be able to deal with the opioid crisis. We need it. I wish we didn't. We need it. We need it for better prevention and education to keep people from coming into the funnel of addiction in the first place, but we also need it for treatment, and we need it for longer-term recovery, which is sometimes quite expensive but requires us to look at this issue in different ways. Historically, short-term treatment programs have not been very successful. A lot of people go through these treatment programs and come out the other end. They might be clean for a while, but typically there is a lot of people who would go back to their addiction. The recidivism rate is very high.
“What we want is for people to go through treatment and get clean at the other end and be able to get back on their feet and be able to restore their ties to their family and their work and their community. And so this longer-term recovery, in my view, from studying this issue for many, many years is a really important part of that. It's providing, yes, the medically-assisted drug treatment that is sometimes needed to be able to get through the addiction—and to get into a good treatment program often is assisted through medically-assisted treatment—but what's more important to me as I look at this and talk to a lot of people, I have probably talked to a thousand addicts, recovering addicts, just in the last couple of years in Ohio, is to be surrounding these people with the right kind of counseling and the right kind of support, including peer support—others who have been through addiction and recovery and gotten on their feet who are recovering addicts. And so there's a cost to that. And although some would say well, ‘is this really a federal government role?’ I would say yes, it's a national epidemic, and it needs to be approached at every level, the national level, the state level, the local level. Ultimately it's not going to be solved here in Washington. It's going to be solved in our communities. But I will tell you the degree of damage that this is causing to our communities, and to our families, and to our budgets locally, to our criminal justice system, requires us to take a more aggressive role at the national level.
“Take best practices around the states and local communities and spread those nationally, as an example, to provide seed money combined with local money that can actually get treatment programs up and going in areas where people cannot get treatment and therefore, even though they are ready to deal with their addiction, they don't have a bed, don't have a place to go. The federal government plays a role already. Medicaid reimbursement, for instance. If you have a treatment center, and you're providing medically-assisted treatment, and you have more than 16 beds, you can't get Medicaid reimbursement beyond 16 beds. That doesn't make any sense. We have some very good treatment centers in Ohio that have 16 beds, but they could have twice that many or even three times that many and provide more help, and yet because of the way the federal government chooses to reimburse, that's not practical. So there are issues here where the government has to be involved.
“I will say that in my home state of Ohio, overdose deaths are now the number one cause of accidental death. Nationally, among those who are under 50, it's the number-one cause of death. In Ohio, we had more deaths from overdoses, from the synthetic opioids, these new drugs like fentanyl and carfentanil, last year than we did anything else. About 58 percent of our deaths were from the synthetic opioids. It is changing from prescription drugs to heroin and now to these synthetic drugs. We have a real crisis on our hands. It's the number-one cause of crime in my community and throughout my state, and probably throughout yours, too. If you think maybe you're not affected by it because you don't have a family member, or friend, or coworker, who was affected and you don't see it clearly, I just would suggest that we're all affected because we're all paying for it. It's additional health care costs. It's additional costs to prosecutions and incarcerations. It's additional cost to crime in the community. It's families being torn apart. It's more and more kids who are in foster care or under state supervision in some way because—we've got record numbers now in my home state—of their parents being addicted. This is a huge issue, and I do think it's one that we need to focus on at every level, including at the national level.
“With regard to fentanyl, a very little bit – just a few flakes of it – can kill you. It's incredibly powerful. It's considered to be 50 times more powerful than heroin. It's cheap. It's easily accessible, and it can be spread to other drugs, which is increasingly happening. We're told by law enforcement it's being used now with cocaine, even some cases marijuana. Certainly it's being packaged into pills that make
s it look like a prescription drug when it's really fentanyl-laced. This stuff can be just deadly. This week I had some people come into the office talking to me about it, and I asked them whether they thought we were turning the tide. Their answer was no because of the fentanyl, because of this new drug that is inexpensive, that's synthetic, that's coming into our country, believe it or not, from overseas primarily—and through the U.S. mail system.
“Just last week in Logan County, Ohio, a 12-year-old girl brought a plastic bag containing fentanyl, she brought it to her middle school. Thankfully a teacher found the bag and called the police to safely remove the drug. But think about that. In that middle school this drug could have killed numerous kids. While police are looking into how this possibly could have ended up in the hands of a 12-year-old, how fentanyl ends up in the United States is no mystery. We now know the answer to that. We've done studies on that. We just did a yearlong investigation looking into this issue, and what we found out was pretty shocking, which is this fentanyl, again, which is this growing drug killing more people in Ohio than any other drug now, it doesn't come in the way you might think. Maybe over land. It typically comes through the mail system. The U.S. mail system. And primarily it comes from China. Does it come from other countries? Yes. Sometimes it's transshipped from China to another country and then to the United States. Some other countries may now be making it. But law enforcement tell me primarily through the mail system and primarily from China.
“You might ask, why is it coming through the mail system? And why are we letting that happen? Well, it's happening because if you try to send it through one of the private carriers like DHL, or FedEx, or UPS, you have to provide a lot of information on the package. You probably know this. If you're shipping stuff, you've got to provide what's in it, where it's from, where it's going. You have to provide that in advance. It's provided electronically in advance to law enforcement. So law enforcement, as I've seen in Ohio at a UPS facility and a DHL facility, can go to these facilities and they can target a package and say ‘aha, this is from a certain region. This has a certain suspicious address where it's going.’ Maybe it's an abandoned warehouse. Maybe it's a P.O. Box they know there has been drugs shipped before. Maybe the contents don't add up. And so they can target that package and get that package off-line and destroy it. By the way, when they do that, trust me, they're wearing gloves, they're wearing masks. They have special rooms now where they can try to avoid being damaged by these drugs because they're incredibly, incredibly dangerous.
“Whereas in the U.S. mail system there's not a requirement. They're starting to require it more, and this year, thanks to the work of some of us who have been pushing this for a couple years now, they're doing a better job than last year. But this last year only 38 percent of packages had advanced electronic data on it. Only 38 percent. Whereas with these other carriers it's 100 percent. Of that 38 percent, sadly, 20 percent of the time when law enforcement said ‘okay, we hear this information about this package, we want to pull it off.’ Twenty percent of the time the Post Office couldn't produce the package, so it went to the P.O. Box or it went to the abandoned warehouse. And a package this big can have hundreds of thousands of people affected. Just think about it, just a few grams of this can kill you.
“So the Post Office needs to provide that same sort of data. We also found in our one-year study of this that the Post Office data they did provide, the 38 percent, often was indecipherable by our security people, because it wasn't information that was helpful. Maybe a lot of numbers or characters that did not let people know what was in it, where it's going, where it's from. So it's good we're beginning to make progress on this, but I think we should have a requirement in law that says the Post Office has to do what these other private carriers do, which is require people who want to ship something into our communities to have this information, so our law enforcement has a chance to be able to find these packages and to stop this poison from coming in to our neighborhoods.
“Now, is this the only solution? No. The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act that I coauthored and passed this place over a year ago now is beginning to work on prevention and treatment and recovery. We talked about that earlier. We need to do more to help our first responders providing the Narcan they need to reverse the effects of overdoses and save lives. We need to get people into these programs rather than the revolving door of people being addicted, having an overdose, being saved, and then having an overdose again. That's all critical, in fact that’s the most important part. But let’s at least stop some of this poison that’s coming in through our own U.S. Government Postal Service. By the way, Postal employees totally agree. They don't want to be a conduit for this stuff. They certainly don't want to be exposed to it. There are some horrible stories of people who are exposed. Because these packages coming in, international packages, sometimes there's some leakage.
“I'll tell you one story that is probably one that would get the attention of every law enforcement official in America. There's a guy in Ohio, a law enforcement officer. He pulls over two individuals. He goes up to the car. He pulls them over for a traffic violation, but he notices they spread some kind of white powder around the car to try to hide it. Wisely, he realizes this might be something dangerous. He puts on his gloves and his mask, finds out it's fentanyl. He arrests these two individuals. They get booked. He goes down to the police station. This officer was a big guy, by the way, 6'2", over 200 pounds, good shape. Looks down on his shirt when he was in the police station talking to his fellow officers. He sees some flecks on his shirt of something, so he reaches over and brushes them off with his hands like that. It was fentanyl. Immediately he overdoses. He becomes unconscious, lying on the floor. Three times Narcan was administered to try to save his life. They had to rush him to the emergency room ultimately to save his life. As his police chief said, ‘if we hadn't been right there, this police officer would not be with us today.’ Think if he had gone home and hugged his kids. So this stuff is dangerous. It's dangerous for our Postal employees. It's dangerous for our Customs and Border Protection people who are bravely out there every day trying to stop this stuff. It's dangerous for the Postal Inspectors, dangerous for the Drug Enforcement Agency individuals.
“We need to give them every tool we can to let them know where the suspect packages are so that they can stop this stuff. At a minimum, what will happen is there will be less supply and there will be higher prices on the street. That's not a bad thing because, again, the cost of this drug is one reason that it's become so popular and so deadly.
“So our legislation is called the STOP Act. It simply says, let's do what we should have done many, many years ago and require this information. After 9/11, this Congress got together and said we're worried about stuff being shipped into this country and so we're going to require private carriers to provide this. So in 2002, there was legislation passed. It was 15 years ago, almost 16 years ago now. And that legislation said at the time ‘you've got to do it if you're the FedEx or UPS’ of the world. But for the Post Office, we recommend you do it. We want you to do a study on it. And the thought was in Congress they would need some time, but that they would be able to do it as well. Well, again, it's been almost 16 years, and now we have this immediate problem which is, in my view, a crisis. And it's a public health problem. And it falls on us as the federal government to deal with it, and this Congress to deal with it.
“I know there are those in the Postal Service who are concerned about it, whether they can require other countries to provide this data. You know what? We provide it to all of our packages going to them. And, again, most countries in the world are now being asked to do it. The rest of the countries ought to be asked. Certainly China ought to be required to do it for all of their packages. They now say about half of the packages from China have some sort of information. It needs to be better information. We also need to get China to do more.
“After our report came out last week, the Chinese government officials responded and said they were concerned, they wanted to do more to cooperate with the United States. That was good. I'm glad to hear that. But frankly, we've been hearing that for a while. I was in China last year on a Congressional delegation. I raised this issue with Premiere Li, the number two ranking official in the government there. We heard the right thing, saying ‘we want to be able to help you be able to stop this at the source.’ We need more help. We believe there are thousands of chemists or chemical companies in China that are producing this poison. Again I'm not suggesting it's exclusively China, but we're told by law enforcement still it’s primarily from China. Let's shut them down. They have made illegal some of the precursors, some of the drugs that go into making this fentanyl. Let's be sure that's being enforced. Let's make this an illegal activity to ship it. Let's do the prosecutions that are necessary and arrest people. There are two individuals who were indicted here in the United States who were Chinese nationals. My understanding is they have yet to be prosecuted, and they have been indicted for shipping poisons into our communities and killing our people. So, yes, there's a lot that has to be done here.
“We need to be sure we're doing a better job on prevention and education to keep people from falling into the addiction in the first place. We need to do much better on treatment and recovery. We talked about that earlier. But at a minimum, let's protect this country. So I encourage my colleagues, if you haven't already cosponsored the STOP Act, Senator Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota and I introduced this legislation together last year. We want your help. We'd love to have your cosponsorship. We have about 30 cosponsors now. It's bipartisan. We need to get 100 cosponsors. Everybody in this chamber should be for this. And we should be able to at least tell our own United States Post Office, you've got to help law enforcement in order to be able to stop this poison. That's part of the answer here, along with so many other things we need to do to keep the fentanyl off the streets, to keep the overdoses and the death toll from rising.
“And, again, I want to thank my colleagues for including in the legislation we're going to vote on later today additional funding over the next two years. I will say with regard to that funding, which is significant, it's an unprecedented amount. We've increased the funding over this fiscal year and last fiscal year by $1.4 billion. That was an unprecedented amount. That's through the so-called CURES Act and CARA legislation. Now we have additional funding, $3 billion this year, $3 billion next year. I do think there is a good framework for spending this money and that would be the programs in the CARA legislation. That's the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. There are about a dozen different programs including recovery programs we talked about earlier, including helping pregnant women who are addicted, to help them avoid having their addiction be passed along to their kids. And this is a big issue in our states right now, all of our neonatal units back home in our hospitals are dealing with it. There is legislation there to help our first responders with training and with Narcan. Certainly to help them deal with this fentanyl danger that they fiscal, the risks they face every day. We have the programs in place. There's not adequate funding for some of those programs to respond to the many requests that are coming in. This is one place for us to provide some help.
“The CURES legislation goes directly to the states. That legislation was passed as part of an appropriations process to help the states be able to identify where they had the highest priority. Some of that, frankly, is in training individuals who can be counselors. We talked about the importance of not just providing medicine to help people get over their addiction, but also to surround them with the kind of treatment that they need, the kind of support that they need. In other states it was a matter of building treatment facilities. One million dollars of this or so was used in Columbus, Ohio, for a very innovative program where there is now a new emergency room that is dedicated to people who overdose, which is better for the individual who overdoses and better for the taxpayer rather than taking him to an emergency room that has the capability to handle the gunshot wounds and trauma and so on, this is dedicated just to overdoses. Most significantly, in this same facility where the overdoses go, you have a 50-bed treatment center, because so often what we find is that people are treated for the overdose, maybe in a detox unit, but then there's no treatment center there. There is no treatment bed available. That person goes back to the community, back to the old neighborhood, and during that waiting period, even though they're ready for treatment coming out of the overdose because often they've kind of seen their life flash before their eyes, there's not the availability and sure enough that person gets back into the use of the drug, heroin, fentanyl, prescription drugs, ends up again overdosing again and sometimes again and again and again.
“You hear this from your first responders. Go to your firehouse. You will hear in every firehouse in America, I will guarantee you, about this issue. I will guarantee you that in most firehouse, certainly all of them I've been to in Ohio, and I've been to many, it's the number one thing that people are doing. In other words, there are more calls for overdoses than there are calls for fires. There are more calls for overdoses than there are calls for heart attacks. This is an issue that, again, affects every one of us, whether we feel it directly or not. So this is an opportunity for us to get these people into the emergency room setting, to save their lives using this miracle drug Narcan, using the best help of our incredible medical professionals who are doing an awesome job on the front lines, but then to get them right into treatment. And say, by the way, here's an opportunity right here. Come right now. We think that's going to close that gap and help to avoid this issue of people not getting the help that you want them to get. Probably eight out of ten people are not getting the treatment that they should be getting.
“I'm encouraging my colleagues to vote for the legislation this afternoon or this evening, whenever we vote on it, in part because it does have that legislation in it regarding the opioids. It does have this new funding, an unprecedented level of funding. It's going to be left to the appropriations committees here to deal with it as to how it's spent. Again, I know they have a lot of great ideas, including legislation that we already passed called CARA, the Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act. We had five conferences here in Washington. We had best practices from around the country. This is all about sending funds out to programs that have been studied, that do have good results. It's not just a matter of throwing money after this problem. We have got to be sure it's done effectively and it leverages more money at the local level. The millions of dollars I talked about that went into the treatment center in Columbus, Ohio, it was matched by state money, it was matched by private sector money, individuals who were giving funds to this because they realized what a problem it is. That's how we should work together.
“Ultimately, this is not going to be solved here in Washington, D.C. It's going to be solved in our communities. It's going to be solved in our families. It's going to be solved in our hearts. Because this is an issue that ultimately is going to require all of us getting engaged on.”