About once a month, I have a teletownhall — a big conference call with tens of thousands of people from across our state to take their questions and ask what’s important to them.
Last week, on one of these calls with folks from Southeast Ohio, I took a poll, asking if anyone, or their family or friends had been directly impacted by heroin or prescription drug addiction. A huge number — 68 percent — answered yes.
I wish that this was surprising. But it just confirms what people tell me wherever I go in Ohio.
More than 2,500 Ohioans now die every year because of drug overdoses. On average, more than 120 Americans die of opiate overdoses every day — one every 12 minutes. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death in Ohio and across the country. This is an epidemic, and it seems to be growing worse all the time.
But help is on the way.
On Thursday, Congress sent to the President the first comprehensive addiction reform legislation in two decades. It’s a bill I authored with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island called the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, or CARA, and it passed with by a 407 to 5 vote in the House and a 92 to 2 vote in the Senate.
Why did CARA receive such bipartisan support?
Partly because it’s such a big issue everywhere, and partly because we went about it in the right away. We spent three years crafting a comprehensive bill with the help of the top experts in law enforcement, health care, and drug prevention, treatment, and recovery. We didn’t just assume that we had all the answers. We took the time to listen, holding five different conferences in Washington, D.C., and I got good input in Ohio, at roundtable discussions, visits at drug treatment centers with those in recovery, and meeting with grieving families who had lost a loved one.
CARA increases federal investments in opioid programs by $181 million annually, while ensuring that these dollars are spent more effectively than ever by targeting them to the prevention, treatment, and recovery programs that have been proven to work best. I believe that this investment will actually save money in the long run by reducing the costs of incarceration, emergency room visits, property crimes, and by helping to get people back to work.
Most importantly, CARA will save lives by keeping people out of the funnel of addiction through better prevention and education programs, by providing better and more accessible treatment and recovery, and by increasing the availability of naloxone, which is a miracle drug that can actually reverse an overdose. In Ohio last year, first responders stopped 16,000 overdoses using naloxone. CARA will get more naloxone to first responders and train them to use it more effectively.
CARA is the first federal law that explicitly acknowledges that we should treat addiction the way we treat other diseases. That will help break the stigma associated with drug addiction, and encourage more people who need help to step forward and get treatment.
CARA is also unique in supporting long-term recovery from addiction. This bill is not just about reversing overdoses; it’s about helping people put their lives back together, repair broken relationships with family and friends, and live a healthy life. CARA helps do that by supporting treatment and recovery programs that have been proven to work, by setting up recovery communities in high schools and colleges, where those in recovery can get the support they need to stay clean. It requires the federal government to study the collateral effects of addiction, and it helps mothers who are receiving treatment for an addiction to minimize the chance of having a baby born dependent on drugs. It helps veterans with their special needs and expands drug courts to offer alternatives to an incarceration program that hasn’t worked.
These and other critical policy changes are why more than 250 public health, law enforcement, criminal justice, and drug policy groups have endorsed CARA.
This is historic legislation, but our work is from over. Every year in the Congressional appropriations process we must fight for adequate funding for these promising new ways to turn the tide in the heroin and prescription drug epidemic, and we must recognize that, ultimately the challenge of addiction must be addressed in our families and our communities. CARA is an important step that makes the federal government a better partner with them in that urgent effort.
Rob Portman is a United States senator from Ohio.