House Panel Approves Bipartisan Legislation to Fight Painkiller Epidemic


WASHINGTON (AP) — The House Judiciary Committee took an election-year swipe Wednesday at the nation's growing drug addiction problem, approving federal grants that would bolster state and local efforts against the abuse of opioid painkillers.

The bipartisan measure sailed through the Judiciary panel by voice vote. Its easy approval contrasted with recent clashes between the two parties over President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, and administration efforts to win quick emergency spending to combat the zika virus and fix the lead-poisoned water supply of Flint, Michigan.

The legislation was among a pile of bills House panels are considering targeting drug abuse, a major concern among voters in the Northeast, South and Midwest, where the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say the problem is most pronounced. House leaders plan to bring the measures to the floor next month.

The chief focus of the Judiciary committee bill is the illegal use of opioids, a class of drugs that includes heroin and legal but potentially addictive narcotics often prescribed as painkillers. These include morphine, codeine, hydrocodone and oxycodone.

The Centers for Disease Control says nearly 500,000 people died from opioid and other drug overdoses between 2000 and 2014. That includes a record 47,000 deaths in 2014, of which 6 in 10 involved opioids.

The Judiciary committee measure would establish federal grants that state and local governments could use for their pick of law enforcement, training, treatment or prescription-drug monitoring programs to combat opioid abuse. The grants would total $103 million annually over the next five years, but the actual amounts provided would be decided by Congress in later spending legislation.

The lead sponsors were Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas.

The Judiciary panel also approved one bill requiring a study of state laws protecting emergency responders from criminal liability while treating overdose victims, and another mandating reports on the effectiveness of grants.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee is working on 11 separate bills addressing drug abuse, including grants making it easier in some cases to provide naloxone, which can counteract opioid overdoses. The numerous bills gave lawmakers, including some in tough re-election fights, an opportunity to sponsor legislation they could tout to voters back home.

Critics said they preferred wider-ranging legislation that the Senate approved last month. They said the Senate bill had stronger provisions strengthening efforts aimed at prevention, education and supporting recovering addicts.

The Senate bill is "the most comprehensive response to the opioid epidemic," said a letter to lawmakers being distributed by the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers and other anti-drug and law enforcement groups.

That measure's chief sponsors were Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.

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