Congress

Elizabeth Warren releases opioid plan ahead of Appalachian campaign stops

Legislation would authorize $100 billion over 10 years to tackle multiple aspects of the epidemic

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has unveiled legislation to address the opioid crisis, which she will address in her capacity as a presidential candidate. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren rolled out Wednesday a revised version of her bill to aggressively ramp up funding to combat the opioid crisis in anticipation of a series of town halls the Democratic presidential contender plans to hold starting this week.

Life expectancy for Americans has dropped for three consecutive years, and drug overdoses are one of the top factors. Warren has been active on the addiction issue — especially speaking out against opioid manufacturers over their role in the crisis and pursuing funding increases to combat the health epidemic.

“Real, structural change to address this crisis is going to take new leadership in Washington,” Warren wrote in a Medium post. “Leadership that will hold business executives that cheat and defraud and addict people responsible for their criminal acts.”

The bicameral draft legislation from Warren and House Oversight Chairman Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., would authorize $100 billion over 10 years to tackle multiple aspects of the opioid epidemic. Their approach mirrors the model of the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act, the biggest federally funded program for individuals with HIV or AIDs.

The plan would be funded like many of other Warren’s campaign proposals like free college and canceling student loan debt — through a two-cent tax per dollar of income for individuals once they’ve earned $50 million.

The pair introduced a similar bill last Congress, but this version would place a greater emphasis on evidence-based treatments for substance abuse, train additional treatment providers and create a grant program to help individuals find and keep jobs while seeking treatment.

Warren’s first stop Friday morning will be a community conversation in Kermit, West Virginia, the subject of an oversight investigation by the House Energy and Commerce Committee last Congress. The 400-person town was found to have received over 9 million opioid pills over two years.

Mingo County, where Kermit is located, has one of the highest rates of prescription opioid-related deaths in the country. Warren will say more Friday about her plan to address the epidemic.

“Kermit has been hard-hit by the opioid epidemic — and not by accident,” Warren wrote. “The companies shipping these pills repeatedly disregarded requirements to report suspicious patterns of behavior, and the state Board of Pharmacy failed to enforce its own rules.”

Kermit is currently suing a former local pharmacy and the five biggest opioid manufacturers.

The Massachusetts Democrat will also visit three Ohio cities — Columbus, Cincinnati and Chillicothe — on Friday and Saturday. The state is commonly called “ground zero” of the crisis, claiming the most opioid overdose deaths in the country in 2014 — outpacing many more populous states.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data pegs West Virginia and Ohio as the two states with the highest death rates from drug overdoses per 100,000 people. In West Virginia, that number was 57.8 per 100,000 and in Ohio, 46.3 per 100,000 in 2017.

By comparison, the national average is 21.7 per 100,000.

Warren worked on multiple provisions in last year’s bipartisan opioid law, but this ambitious plan — despite support for it from over 200 local and national advocacy organizations — faces a steep battle to passage.

While federal funding has been increasing to fight the public health crisis, current appropriations have never reached the level Warren is proposing.

“We should pass it — not in two years, not after the 2020 elections — but immediately,” wrote Warren. “If we don’t, it will be because politicians who have spent years wringing their hands about this crisis aren’t willing to do what’s necessary to end it.”

Many Democrats have capitalized on reaching out to voters in districts especially affected by the epidemics.

On the congressional level, senators like Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., released ads in 2018 and likely benefited from addressing the crisis a key campaign issue. Others like former Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Claire McCaskill of Missouri — who also focused on the issue — were less successful.

Going into 2020, the epidemic is almost certain to continue to play a large role on the campaign trail. Warren’s own home state of Massachusetts has been hit hard like much of New England, especially the electorally important neighboring state of New Hampshire.

President Donald Trump has similarly spoken out on the issue a number of times, though the two candidates differ significantly in how they would approach the crisis.

Last week, fellow Democratic candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota rolled out her plan to address mental health and addiction, which would institute a fee on prescription opioids to help expand treatment facilities for people with mental health and substance abuse disorders.

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