WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) delivered remarks on the Senate floor today discussing the opioid epidemic gripping Ohio—and our country—and his legislative efforts to help combat the crisis. Portman highlighted how funding he fought for through the 21st Century CURES legislation enacted in December 2016 has provided $1 billion over two years to fight the heroin and prescription drug epidemic. This funding complements his Comprehensive Addiction & Recovery Act (CARA) legislation and the additional $3 billion in opioid funding in the bipartisan budget agreement enacted earlier this year. Increasing funding is just one aspect of Portman’s efforts to combat this epidemic.  The House recently passed Portman’s bipartisan Synthetics Trafficking & Overdose Prevention (STOP) Act, or STOP Act, which would help stop dangerous synthetic drugs like fentanyl from being shipped into the U.S., and he is urging the Senate to pass it as quickly as possible.  In addition, Portman’s bipartisan CARA 2.0 Act is designed to build on CARA’s successes and provide additional resources and strengthen the federal government’s response to this crisis.  

Said Portman in his speech: “Let’s pass the STOP Act to make sure we can deal with this fentanyl crisis. Let’s ensure we can turn the corner, turn the tide, begin to save lives.” 

A full transcript of his remarks can be found below and a video can be found here.

  

“I want to talk today about the opioid epidemic that has gripped my state of Ohio and so many other states represented by members of this chamber. This is the number-one killer now in Ohio. It surpasses car accidents. It is the number-one cause of death for Americans under the age of 50. Unfortunately, although some are saying we’ve turned the corner, we haven’t turned the corner in a lot of parts of my state. There are areas of our state where we had more overdose deaths this year than we had last year, as tragic as last year was being a big increase from the year before. I do believe that here in this chamber we have made progress in passing legislation that is beginning to make a difference. I’ll talk about that today. But I also believe we have much more to do. 

“In the last couple of years Congress has gotten busy on this issue. In 2016 we passed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. It was the culmination of four years’ worth of work of conferences here in Washington, bringing some of the best minds from around the country together, looking at some of the best practices to say, ‘Have you actually focused on this issue of the opioid epidemic in a comprehensive way?’ Because we know that’s what has to be done. It was about evidence-based prevention strategies, about evidence-based treatment, about longer-term recovery. It actually was the first time Congress had ever passed legislation dealing with longer-term recovery, and that’s because we heard so much testimony, me back home in Ohio and members from around the country but also from experts about the chances for success when you go into treatment, particularly for this opioid epidemic, the chances for success increase dramatically if you can have that longer-term recovery. Think of sober housing opportunities after somebody comes out of treatment to help get them on the right track. 

“That bipartisan legislation I introduced with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse is now working back home. It’s now going out to, again, programs that are evidence-based, proven programs to try to give them a little boost working with local government, state government, nonprofits and others. Leveraging some of the federal money so that it ends up making a bigger difference to try to turn the tide on this epidemic. Maybe most importantly, this legislation, again, called the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, or CARA, maybe the most important thing about CARA is it recognized addiction as a disease. It was in some respects the first time we had done that as a Congress as well. By recognizing it as a disease, it changes the way you view treatment. Because it’s something that is not a moral failing. It is often caused, in fact, by an accident or injury, somebody getting a prescription pill that changes something in their brain. They become addicted. But the point is in order to solve it, in order to address it, treatment is the avenue that is going to be most successful. So treating it like a disease, I think, is one of the essential aspects of it. And also pulling away the stigma, getting some of the stigma out of the way enables more people to come forward, get treatment for their family members to seek treatment for a loved one, for doctors and others in the medical profession to treat people in a way that helps get them on the right path to recovery. 

“That legislation passed. In fact, earlier this year in the bipartisan budget agreement there was additional funding put aside for CARA, and for other opioid programs, including one I’ll talk about second. And that was very important. That two-year funding bill provided $6 billion over two years, unprecedented. We’ve never done anything like that around here. Are we making progress? Yes. Are we there yet? No.

“The CARA legislation, in my view, was the right first step, but there is a second step which is what we call CARA 2.0, Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act 2.0 and it learns from some of the things we have found out in the field as CARA has been implemented. It picks up some additional provisions. For instance, it talks about the need to deal even more substantially with overprescribing because most people who die in your state or mine from an opioid overdose started with prescription drugs. That was their first opioid. I mentioned people who might have an accident or injury and are given opioids, we need to stop that overprescribing in order to get at the core of so much of this problem. Probably eight out of 10 people in Ohio who overdose on fentanyl or heroin started on prescription drugs, sometimes obtained legally, sometimes not. 

“It breaks my heart to have a young person come to my office and say, ‘I had my wisdom tooth taken out’ -- this has happened to me fairly frequently – ‘and this doctor gave me opioid pills for a wisdom tooth removal.’ In the cases recently in my office, it’s been a young person saying, ‘I was too smart to take them.’ Thank goodness. Be careful. And to the parents out there and kids who are listening, be careful. 

“Our legislation includes, by the way, CARA 2.0, a three-day limit on prescription drugs for acute pain. Acute pain would be after a procedure like that, for example. The dentists I know, including the new head of the American Dental Association, who has a passion for this issue because he’s from Cincinnati, my hometown, understand the impact of this. A lot of people I talk to say you shouldn’t be using opioids at all in that case. When I had my wisdom teeth taken out I wasn’t given opioids nor were probably many in my generation. And yet that seems to be normal today. So this is an example in CARA 2.0 of how we go further. In the meantime, we have the CARA legislation out there being funded. That’s a good thing.  

“The other legislation is the CURES legislation. That funding goes directly to the states and then is delivered to various groups around the state usually through the Alcohol, Drug Addiction, and Mental Health Boards, some of you know about those. You’ve probably been involved with those. That was passed at the end of 2016, passed as part of the 21st Century CURES legislation, which was broader legislation. But we made sure opioids were included there. And I thank some of my colleagues for working with me on that. There were so many but Lamar Alexander, the senator from Tennessee, stands out as an appropriator and authorizer who knew we needed to get more funding out to these states, particularly states like mine and his that are so hard hit. Shelley Moore Capito from West Virginia, a state that is probably unfortunately number one in terms of opioid deaths. Ohio is right behind. Another state hit hard. Many colleagues of mine fought to ensure that funding was in that legislation. It’s making a difference as well. Last year my home state of Ohio received $26 million in CURES funding. Just recently another $26 million has been distributed. 

“These two laws, CARA and CURES, are helping and encouraging innovative programs across Ohio. I’ve had an opportunity to visit a lot of these programs around the state. I’ve been to dozens of treatment centers and to roundtable discussions in communities to talk about how this funding can be used most effectively. Let me give you a couple of examples. The week before last, I was in the Columbus area in a town called Whitehall. I went to the fire station to have a roundtable discussion about this with community leaders and see how their program called SAFE is working. It’s called the SAFE Station Program, and it was made possible with a $400,000 grant through the CARA legislation. So this funding has been used to train up firefighters, EMS personnel, so they understand how to deal with the opioid issue so when they have an overdose they can help somebody go into treatment. This is really important for a couple of reasons. 

“This seems very simple but unfortunately there’s a big gap right now in most of our own communities. And I encourage you to plug into your community to find out if it’s happening in yours because it probably is. That is that someone who overdoses is typically saved by this miracle drug called Narcan. Our legislation, CARA, provides more funding for Narcan, we need this, it’s necessary but it’s not sufficient. So many people overdose, are saved by this miracle drug that reverses the effects of the overdose, but then what happens? In the vast majority of cases, these people go right back to their old environment. Maybe to a dysfunctional family, maybe to a gang, maybe to just the old neighborhood. And if you talk to EMS personnel, firefighters and police officers who are the ones responsible for finding these people and treating them, they will tell you they are not happy about giving someone Narcan again and again and again. They want to see that person get into treatment. It makes no sense for any of us, certainly not for the taxpayer, it also makes no sense for that addict and that addict’s family and friends, employer, if there is one, because that person is not getting the help that he or she needs. 

“How do you close that gap? They’re doing it at this firehouse in Whitehall, Ohio. They’re doing it in two ways. One, opening up the doors of the firehouse and saying come on in. When I was there, actually, just by chance, a young man who described himself to me as a heroin addict and had heroin on his person, he had arrived just before me at this firehouse, just by chance, he had come in off the street because he felt like it was a safe place. He wasn’t going to get arrested. No one was going to ask him a lot of questions, but they were going to get him into treatment. He said he was ready. Of course, I asked him as I often do with addicts, recovering addicts, ‘How many times have you been through treatment and what worked and didn’t work?’ He had been through three times already and it hadn’t worked. He said the difference now is he believed he was ready. You have to believe him and get someone in treatment when they are ready. That’s why having the doors of the firehouse open is really important. He was nervous but he was being transported right after I had a chance to visit with him, and I got to see how the EMS personnel compassionately and professionally dealt with him, but he was getting transported to the Addiction Stabilization Center in downtown Columbus run by MaryHaven. 

“CARA funded the fire station and their program. CURES is what made possible the Addiction Stabilization Center, $1.2 million in CURES funding in Downtown Columbus, which is taking people from all over Franklin County and the Columbus area and making a tremendous difference in getting people, not just the Narcan and saving their lives, but also into treatment, getting them into recovery. And that’s the key, closing that gap. 

“It’s tragic to me that that gap is so prevalent and causing such a problem around our state and our country. Anyway, the other thing they do of course at this fire station is when they have somebody who has overdosed and they provide Narcan, they bring them through this system and take them to MaryHaven Addiction Stabilization Center and get them the help they need. And it works remarkably well. Not everybody agrees to go but the vast majority do. And that’s a huge difference again from what normally happens in our country. It’s an example of the kind of comprehensive program that will help close the gaps and catch those falling between the cracks. It’s no surprise that the Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Jerome Adams, said recently when he visited this program in Columbus, ‘This is one of the best programs in the country for lowering stigma and enabling recovery.’ I appreciate the Surgeon General’s involvement, his willingness to come to Ohio to help us and see how these programs are working that we have passed here in the United States Congress. 

“I’ve seen similar successes made possible through CURES funding and CARA funding around the state. Recently, I was in Summit County, which is in Northeast, Ohio, going from Columbus, Ohio, to Northeast, Ohio, called the Summa Barberton Hospital. They received a grant from CURES and they are using that for a pilot program to employ a full time addiction area coordinator during overnight hours and ensure there is medication assisted treatment available at the emergency room itself. This had not been available previously. What they’re finding is somebody comes into the emergency room, typically, again, that person walks right back out the door after being saved by this miracle drug Narcan, also known as nalaxone, and never to be heard from again until there is another overdose. And sometimes by the way, according to the nurses, that overdose might happen as soon as the next several hours in the parking lot at the hospital. That’s no solution. So what they’re doing instead is bringing people in, sending them to a counselor. 

“I got to meet the three women who are the counselors there, incredibly empathetic women who are taking these people in, saying, ‘No stigma here, no questions asked. How can we help you? Wouldn’t you like to be back with your kids? Or back in a job? Or back at a place where you can respect yourself?’ And they have had remarkable success by saying we can provide you right now, right here, in their case suboxone, a treatment program where you wean somebody off a drug like suboxone in order for them to get off their addiction and not go through the horrible pain of withdrawal, at least not as difficult a withdrawal. They have had great success with that program as well. Again, closing that gap. I encourage you to look in your community at these types of programs and support them. They’re also collaborating with United Way of Summit County and engaging the business community to help with this issue. That makes me really happy. 

“Every time I meet with business groups, I try to raise this issue. I’ll talk about the importance of tax reform and regulatory relief and our economy is picking up but you know what? It’s incredible the number one problem we have in our economy right now is what? Lack of workers. Every employer, small, large, medium size are all telling me, ‘We need workers.’ There’s a skills-gap of course, there are other issues, but I think the single biggest issue, is this opioid epidemic, and that’s based on a couple studies, one from the Department of Labor, one from the Brookings Institution, which shows that those that are out of work altogether, who aren’t even applying for jobs – and by the way, among men it may be at historic levels – about 8.5 million men are literally not trying to get a job. 8.5 million men between age 25 and 55, prime working years. And you know what? Half of them say – 46 percent, based on one survey, 48 percent on another – that’s got to be underreported because there is a stigma, a legal issue, but half of them say they’re taking pain medication on a daily basis. Two-thirds acknowledged that it’s prescription medication in one study. So this is a huge issue in the business community, it should be. 

“If you want to have more workers out there who are you to go to work, help with this addiction. Provide funding for these programs that work but dig in in your community. Find out what’s not working. If you have this gap, between those who are overdosing and getting this Narcan and those getting into treatment, address that. You might find innovative ways to do it. If you’re finding there’s another gap between shorter-term treatment – six, seven, eight, 10 weeks in the longer-term recovery – help address that and encourage longer-term recovery programs. It could be outpatient programs, it might be residential programs, but we know that works to really get people back on track. Find out what’s going on, in your local community in terms of prevention. Is anybody going to the middle schools and talking about what a ruinous mistake this can be for your life to go down this path and to be careful about prescription drugs? If we don’t all get involved and we all have a reason, every one of us, to ensure people can live out their God-given potential then we won’t have done everything we can to try and reverse this trend. What I’m seeing back home is what we’ve done here so far is starting to work. 

“I’ve got to tell you, I believe we would already be seeing a reversal and fewer overdoses across the board, if not for one thing. That is the influx in the last few years particularly of this new drug. It’s a synthetic form of opioids. It’s not heroin, it’s not prescription drugs, it’s usually called fentanyl, sometimes carfentanil. But what it is is something that a person made. Here’s the shocking news. Fentanyl is 50 times more powerful than heroin, sometimes worse. It’s very inexpensive, readily accessible, and it’s coming not across the Mexican border, not being made in this country. It’s coming from overseas, mostly from China, and is coming through our United States mail system. Let’s be clear, this is the new crisis. Probably two-thirds of the deaths in my home state of Ohio from overdoses are now being linked to fentanyl. 

“We had a tele-town hall meeting earlier this month and the questions came in and people are making statements and one guy called and wanted to talk about the drug issue, and he was very professional and very specific about what he wanted to talk about and toward the end of his comments and questions, I could hear his voice crack. And I just knew something was up. Sure enough he said, ‘By the way, my son died from a fentanyl overdose just a couple weeks ago.’ He talked about how his son thought he was just taking heroin, not that heroin is not incredibly dangerous in and of itself. But the tragic story that Sam from Shelby County, Ohio, told me was that his son died of an overdose from fentanyl and now his father was on the call trying to figure out how to get at this. He wanted to talk about the STOP Act, which is legislation we have introduced here in this chamber to try to at least stop some of the flow of this deadly poison into our communities. Again, we know where it’s being made, we know where it’s coming from. Law enforcement is desperate for some better tools to be able to stop some of this poison from coming in. 

“We spent about a year in the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations studying this issue. That’s a subcommittee I chair. We got some undercover folks involved with us to help us from the Department of Homeland Security. We were able to go online and find out how this tragic criminal network works. And we were able to access a couple hundred websites online that were happy to sell fentanyl freely online. By the way, we were able to trace the payment systems for people who had bought from these particular websites and therefore be able to track who was actually receiving these shipments, and we were able to find six different instances where somebody had actually gotten fentanyl from one of these sites, and then by looking at the local news determining that person died of an overdose within a few days or a few weeks of receiving that shipment. So we were able to do this just by going online and finding out these people who had bought these drugs from these people, they themselves had died of overdoses from fentanyl. 

“But think of all the thousands of others who had died who had received drugs through some of these criminal networks. And, frankly, what we found as we looked into this deeper and deeper was exactly what you would expect, which is these traffickers are smart. There is a lot of money in this. They know how to send these drugs into our neighborhoods. And they want to do it through the United States Postal Service. Why? Because the other carriers, think FedEx, or DHL, or UPS, and private carriers, they are required by law, passed in the United States Congress, to tell law enforcement what packages are coming in, where they are coming from, what’s in it, where it’s going through advanced electronic data before the package comes to this country. We required that after 9/11, frankly not because of fentanyl but because of the concern about people having other contraband, including explosives and packages, so we required all the private carriers to say to law enforcement here’s what’s coming in. Here’s where it’s from. Here’s what’s in it. Here’s where it’s going. With that information, law enforcement can then find suspicious packages. And I have seen them do it. 

“I have gone to distribution centers in my state and been able to see some of these brave personnel from Customs and Border Protection. They are brave because some of this stuff is really dangerous. By the way, when they take a package in to inspect it, they have to put on a protective suit. They have to be in a room that’s well ventilated so they don’t overdose and die from some of this fentanyl that’s coming in. But by knowing where it’s from, where it’s going, what’s in it, and by having access to big data all around the world – not just the country but the world – to know where the hot spots are, where maybe some Chinese company that has some evil chemists who are engaged in this, maybe they are trying to transship it from another country. They see it coming from another country, they can find those packages as well. But they are remarkably successful at finding some of this stuff and getting it offline rather than having it go into our communities. 

“But the Postal Service was not required to do this after 9/11. Instead, the Postal Service was told you ought to study the issue because it’s important and get back to us. We are still waiting for that study. That was over 15 years ago. So when you go online, what we found out is these websites are happy to send it to you through the Postal Service. In fact, they virtually guarantee delivery if you use the Postal Service. If you use one of these other carriers, they don’t. That’s sad. A United States government agency is being used as a conduit to ship poison into our communities that’s the number one killer in my home state. 

“So our legislation is very simple. It simply requires the Postal Service to provide 100 percent advanced electronic data to our law enforcement so they can do the job they want to do. Law enforcement is desperate for these tools. You can imagine they want to stop this poison. By the way, the letter carriers I know, you ask your letter carrier, they don’t want to carry this stuff, and they certainly don’t want to have this stuff going in to poison the communities they serve. 

“We have about one-third of the United States Senate now as cosponsors of this legislation. Will it solve the entire problem? No. We talked earlier about the need for more prevention, education, treatment, the longer-term recovery, but at least, let’s keep some of this poison from coming in. At a minimum, it’s going to raise the price, which is one of our huge problems with fentanyl today. It’s not only 50 times more powerful than heroin and people chase that high, but it is very inexpensive relative to other forms of opioids. So my hope is that we will have this legislation on the floor in the next few weeks. We will be able to, in a bipartisan way, to deal with this issue and tell someone like Sam from Shelby County, who I talked about earlier who called in on the tele-town hall, we are doing something so the next dad is not going to have this kind of tragedy befall his son. By the way, two weeks earlier, during another tele-town hall meeting, a woman called in, same thing, at the end of it she talked about her brother who had died of an overdose of fentanyl that had been put in another drug. It’s being spread on not just heroin, not just cocaine, crystal meth, but other drugs as well. That’s one of the great challenges law enforcement has today. 

“So, Mr. President, I appreciate the opportunity today to talk about some of the positive things this Congress has done, the CURES Act, the CARA Act. How I have seen it back home making a difference in the lives of the people I represent, but also the need for us to do more. Certainly fund those programs, continue to provide the funding at these historic levels because it’s necessary, because the epidemic absolutely deserves that kind of attention. It’s necessary. But second, let’s take these other steps. Let’s stop this overprescribing. Let’s pass the STOP Act to make sure we can deal with this fentanyl crisis. Let’s ensure we can turn the corner, turn the tide, begin to save lives. I think we can if we continue to make progress and continue to focus on these issues that make such a difference to our constituents.” 

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