By Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT)
Here’s a startling statistic: Last year alone, drug overdoses claimed the lives of 64,000 people. This is the latest figure in a shocking rise in overdose deaths, driven by the opioid epidemic that has hit every corner of our country and plagues every community. This is a public health crisis. We need to start treating it like one. We need to allocate every necessary resource to finally – and meaningfully – confront it.
Vermont has made tremendous strides by leveraging Medicaid dollars through a “hub and spoke” model to confront opioid addiction as a health care crisis, not an incarceration problem. This is a system that provides patients with medication-assisted treatment and connects patients with a variety of resources from housing to peer support to counseling, not just once or twice but through their recovery and beyond.
In Vermont, this model is proving effective. But we must continue to invest in it. It is alarming and disappointing that, from the start of his administration, President Trump has refused to make the necessary investments to tackle the opioid epidemic. The president’s budget request seeks to eliminate programs, like the anti-heroin task force, that have proven to be effective. In fact, in his budget, President Trump called for reducing funding for the opioid epidemic by $104 million.
And President Trump’s long-awaited October declaration on the nationwide opioids crisis proved nothing more than symbolic talk. There is no action or new funding behind the president’s empty words to address this crisis. This is unacceptable.
Even worse, in the middle of the night Saturday, Republicans here in the Senate voted to slash Medicaid by $1 trillion to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy. Medicaid is a critical lifeline to provide care for victims of opioid abuse and is the main funding source behind Vermont’s “hub and spoke” model.
We cannot pretend to be seriously addressing this crisis while simultaneously kicking the legs out from under the recovery effort.
Here in the Senate Appropriations Committee, however, we are trying to meet our commitment to address this public health crisis. The fiscal year 2018 Senate Appropriations bills would provide more than $1.6 billion in funding.
Since March, I have been calling for a bipartisan deal that would raise the spending caps for both defense and nondefense spending and allow us to increase these investments, because we still need to be doing more. It is now December. We need that deal, and we need it now.
It should not be understated: 64,000 people lost their lives to opioid addiction last year. Tens of thousands of more people were impacted by those deaths – families, friends, communities. I fear those numbers will only rise this year, next year and beyond if we do not act now to fight this epidemic. It affects us all. It’s time we give it the serious attention and investment it demands.
Senator Leahy is the vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and made the above comments at the Labor, Health and Human Services Subcommittee hearing.