Opioids: An American Crisis

Rep. Morgan Griffith
Rep. Morgan Griffith
You probably hear a lot about the disagreements in Washington, and that’s not surprising. Having two major parties that disagree on some bedrock principles, such as the role of government, means a lot of give and take.

But there are some things on which we largely agree. Solving the opioid crisis, which takes the lives of 115 Americans on average per day, is one of them.

On March 20th, 21st, and 22nd, the Subcommittees of the Energy and Commerce Committee on which I serve advanced our bipartisan work on the opioid crisis with a series of hearings looking at the problem from several angles.

As I wrote a few weeks ago in this column, the Energy and Commerce Committee is at the center of the action on this issue in the House of Representatives because it has jurisdiction over health issues.

The first hearing was convened by the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, and continued a years-long investigation into “pill dumping.” The committee has sought answers as to how enormous quantities of opioids made their way to pharmacies in small communities; for example, the 20.8 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills shipped over ten years to a pharmacy in Williamson, West Virginia, which has a population of 2,900.

We’ve held hearings and asked for answers on these questions before. This hearing focused on one big question: has the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) been doing its job effectively? Regrettably, in my opinion the answer is no.

The DEA has the authority to crack down on suspicious distributions of controlled substances through Immediate Suspension Orders (ISOs), which revoke registration for entities engaged in the manufacture, distribution, and dispensation of controlled substances when the DEA Administrator finds an imminent danger to public safety. But as the opioid crisis worsened, the DEA used ISOs less, dropping from 65 in 2011 to six in 2017.

Robert Patterson, the DEA’s Acting Administrator, was the sole witness. Members on both sides of the aisle identified lapses in the DEA’s enforcement steps and pushed for stronger actions from the agency. Acting Administrator Patterson agreed that the DEA fell short in the past. I hope that the hearing will encourage the DEA to use the legal authority it already has to step up enforcement against illegitimate distributions of opioids.

While the O&I hearing focused on ways laws were not being used properly, a two-day Subcommittee on Health hearing explored how laws could be improved. Nineteen witnesses, from public health officials to addiction specialists to those recovering from addiction, offered their perspectives on 25 pieces of legislation related to the crisis.

Many of these bills are bipartisan, such as a draft I authored with Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), E&C’s Ranking Member. It would improve federal support for state-run prescription drug monitoring programs, providing increased data for health care professionals to consider as they decide how best to treat patients.

These three days of hearing were illuminating, but more work remains to be done. E&C will hold more hearings on this topic, with the goal of marking up legislation and moving it to the House floor in the near future.

Many residents of the Ninth District have been affected by the opioid crisis in some way. According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more opioids were prescribed per person in Martinsville in 2015 than any other jurisdiction in the country. The Bristol Herald Courier ran a powerful series last year on neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), which affects infants born to addicted parents, in Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee. Some of the “pill mills” in West Virginia which distributed enormous quantities of opioids are close to the border with Virginia.

Opioids are a tragic equalizer in our country today. People from every background, of every income level, can become addicted. Red states and blue states have been afflicted by this scourge, and their representatives in Congress are looking for ways to fight back.

Families across the country are counting on us to continue working together in an effort to alleviate one of the great health crises of our time.

If you have questions, concerns, or comments, feel free to contact my office. You can call my Abingdon office at 276-525-1405 or my Christiansburg office at 540-381-5671. To reach my office via email, please visit my website at www.morgangriffith.house.gov. Also on my website is the latest material from my office, including information on votes recently taken on the floor of the House of Representatives.