Commentary: Congress must do more to stem the opioid tide
Overdose deaths from prescription opioid painkillers and related heroin use have reached epidemic levels in Delaware and across the country. Each time we open the newspaper, it seems we’re confronted with new, jarring headlines that capture the painful reality of this crisis.
In 2017, nearly 350 people died from overdoses in Delaware, up 12 percent from the 308 people who died in 2016. Even worse, August 2018 was the deadliest month on record for drug-related overdoses, claiming 39 lives in 31 days.
This epidemic is ravaging families and communities, and without significant attention and investment, our country will not be able to stem the tide of this crisis and break the cycle of addiction. That’s why I’m urging my colleagues in Congress to do more.
The good news is that Republicans and Democrats have made progress. Last year, we passed a funding bill that included $3.7 billion to help states like Delaware fight the opioid epidemic, an increase of $2.7 billion over 2017.
This bipartisan bill recognized the strain the epidemic has placed on our first responders and our communities. It included funding to enhance opioid overdose surveillance and prevention efforts, improve State Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs, and increase access to opioid and substance use disorder treatment in rural and underserved areas.
Democrats and Republicans also worked together to pass the bipartisan SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act, which will improve our ability to tackle opioid abuse through our healthcare and law enforcement systems.
I’m glad that members of Congress on both sides of the aisle could work together to get these bills signed into law, but there’s still more that we can do to end this epidemic once and for all.
One important step we should take is to pass the bipartisan DEA Clearinghouse Act that I introduced with Republican Sen. Cory Gardner from Colorado. This bill will help prevent drug diversion in real time before it has the ability to inflict damage in our communities.
What is drug diversion? It’s one of the ways opioids and other pharmaceuticals are getting into our communities. Bad actors are taking advantage of a blind spot in the supply chain to ship a disproportionate amount of prescription drugs to pharmacies across the country. These drugs can then get into the hands of users and dealers, continuing the cycle of addiction.
Think about it this way: a small pharmacy in a sparsely populated town orders one million oxycodone pills. Seems like a lot for a town that size, right?
Unfortunately, though, the Drug Enforcement Agency, using the Automated Reports and Consolidated Ordering System, currently has no way of knowing in real time that this is happening.
That means distributors - who fill orders from pharmacies - do not necessarily know that one of their customers might be placing orders with multiple distributors, thus ordering more controlled substances than they actually need.
DEA is the only law enforcement entity that can see all of that data and flag any suspicious orders that are submitted, but they do not currently track this information instantaneously. So, once DEA finds a suspicious order, it’s already too late and these dangerous drugs have already been distributed to our communities.
Our bill would require DEA to notify the distributor in real time if a potentially suspicious order is detected. If, after further evaluation, the DEA is able to see that drug diversion is taking place, they would be able to flag this for distributors and notify them that something suspicious is going on.
The bipartisan DEA Clearinghouse Act is a commonsense proposal that will shore up our drug supply chain, eliminate blind spots, and prevent prescription opioids from flooding our communities, and we will work closely with DEA to ensure this bill leads to effective improvements.
As we continue to fight the opioid epidemic, our focus should be on putting forward commonsense proposals like the DEA Clearinghouse Act that will keep our communities safe.
Chris Coons is the junior senator representing Delaware in U.S. Congress.