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Sullivan’s bill would bring funds to fight opioid addiction among vets, rural Alaskans

Sen. Dan Sullivan talks with Big Lake Republican Rep. Mark Neuman on Feb. 26 at the Capitol in Juneau before Sullivan’s annual address to the state Legislature. (Nathaniel Herz / ADN)

WASHINGTON — Sen. Dan Sullivan joined colleagues to introduce a bill this week that would boost funding for the fight against opioid addiction, with provisions aimed specifically at Alaska.

Sullivan said his work with Alaskans inspired parts of the bill that direct state grant funds to rural and Native populations and policy provisions aimed at supporting veteran court systems focused on treating addiction.

"If we had a disease that ripped through America, like Ebola or something, and killed 64,000 people last year, you know there would be like a national, well-funded effort," Sullivan said. "…So one of the things I've been pressing for is more resources."

Sullivan said his aim, with a bipartisan group of senators, is to get the bill included in an omnibus spending bill that is expected to move at the end of the month. The bill, which they're calling "CARA 2.0," piggybacks on the prior "CARA," the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. It boosts the original bill's funding allowances and adds several new policy provisions.

While he signed on to the CARA bill when he arrived in Congress in 2015, Sullivan said, "this one I helped write."

In 2016, more than 64,000 Americans died of drug overdoses, which Sullivan noted is a higher number than the casualties of the entire Vietnam War.

Drug addiction is particularly a problem for veterans — of which Alaska has a large population — Sullivan said. "A lot of the elements of this crisis have actually been young men and women coming off active duty, going to the VA, and just getting a ton of drugs from the VA. I love the VA and I love our people in Alaska, but the VA in some places has helped fuel this; there's no doubt," Sullivan said.

In Alaska, treatment options can be scarce, with many patients far from doctors, and few beds available for detox.

To deal with that, the bill would make permanent the law that allows physician assistants and nurse practitioners — not just doctors — to prescribe buprenorphine, an addiction treatment medicine. It would also let states expand the number of patients that physicians can treat beyond the current 100-person cap.

The bill includes a broad definition of "first responder," to allow funding for village public safety officers that are common in Alaska. And Sullivan urged colleagues to expand funding for education campaigns meant to prevent young people from using drugs.

The new bill would also expand states' prescription drug monitoring requirements and increase civil and criminal penalties for manufacturers who fail to report suspicious opioid orders.

Central to the bill's purpose is increasing funding — adding millions of dollars nationally to fund preventive education, treatment and help for pregnant and postpartum women and their infants.

Sullivan said that he has pushed for a rural and tribal focus in the bill, with 15 percent set aside for tribes. In Alaska, "a lot of our really top-notch health providers are tribal organizations," he said.

One provision in the bill has given Sullivan some pause — a provision that limits initial painkiller prescriptions to three days. That just won't work for some rural areas of Alaska, Sullivan said, raising concerns that some patients might not be able to access medicine after surgeries or other medical events.

Sullivan introduced the bill with Republican Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Democratic Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Maria Cantwell of Washington.

In October, the Trump administration declared the opioid crisis a national public health emergency. The federal government has focused on reducing the number of opioids prescribed nationally, particularly out of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The president held an event at the White House Thursday, which was attended by Dr. Jay Butler, Alaska's chief medical officer and the director of the Division of Public Health.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new task force this week that will look to pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors that the White House says have "contributed to the epidemic."

This week the Justice Department also filed a "statement of interest" in a lawsuit brought against manufacturers by cities and institutions that say they've paid the cost of dealing with the opioid crisis. DOJ will argue that the federal government has also had to bear substantial costs and deserves reimbursement.

"We will seek to hold accountable those whose illegality has cost us billions of taxpayer dollars," Sessions said.

"If you shoot one person, you get life in prison…. These people kill 1,000, 2,000 people and nothing happens to them," Trump said at the White House meeting Thursday.

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