U.S. Sen. Angus King talks to the media after hosting a round table to get input from federal and local law enforcement about terrorist attacks on Friday in Bangor. Credit: Micky Bedell | BDN

The U.S. Senate is considering legislation this week to combat the opioid and heroin epidemics by expanding treatment and recovery programs. The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act is co-sponsored by independent Sen. Angus King and Republican Sen. Susan Collins, both of whom have drawn significance from the story of Garrett Brown, a young man from central Maine who let the BDN chronicle his life for two-and-a-half years before dying of a heroin overdose late last year. King spoke on the Senate floor around 10 a.m. Wednesday about Garrett and the need to prevent more deaths.

Brown was often in touch with Augusta police and courts. After he accidentally overdosed on heroin two times in 2015, he faced criminal charges and jail, but for a variety of reasons was not connected to evidence-based treatment. He was required to attend counseling, which had not been effective for him before and, by itself, is not considered the standard of care for someone with an opioid addiction.

Medication, such as methadone or buprenorphine (Suboxone), paired with comprehensive counseling and behavioral therapy — sometimes in a residential treatment facility where patients can heal in a substance-free environment — is currently the most proven treatment for adults with an opioid use disorder. Compared with just counseling or no treatment at all, it increases the odds someone will live.

The legislation currently being considered, which is sponsored by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, would authorize more funding to states for a number of improvements, including expanding the availability of medication-assisted treatment; training criminal justice professionals and treatment providers on medication-assisted treatment guidelines; expanding programs for behavioral therapy; and developing ways to screen, intervene and refer teenagers and young adults to treatment.

The bill itself has a somewhat rare level of bipartisan support, including backing by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky. The biggest sticking point has been funding. Democrats have expressed the need for emergency funding now, while Republicans have discussed waiting for the regular appropriations process. They have not settled on a specific sum, though Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, has proposed a $600-million emergency supplemental spending bill to cover costs. The Obama administration originally called for $1 billion.

Here is Collins’ statement on the Senate floor Tuesday:

Here is more detail on what the bill seeks to do:

  • convene a task force to update best practices for pain management and prescribing pain medication;
  • launch an awareness campaign to inform the public, providers, patients and others about the risk of misuse of prescription opioid drugs.
  • provide grants for local, comprehensive strategies to address the drug crisis, such as by creating treatment alternatives to incarceration, forming special response teams for police calls related to substance use or expanding the use of drug courts;
  • award funding for first responders, such as firefighters, police officers and paramedics, to carry naloxone, a medication that reverses the effects of opioids, and training on how to use it;
  • expand the use of prescription drug take-back programs;
  • funding for high schools, colleges and nonprofits to develop recovery initiatives;
  • funding to expand educational programs for people in prison, jail and juvenile facilities;
  • form a taskforce to recommend legislation to reduce barriers for people in recovery with drug-related criminal records; and
  • funding for services to support pregnant and postpartum women with substance use disorders.
Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.