CARA legislation moves into final conference stages in Washington D.C. as Ohio Congressman Rob Portman took to the Senate floor for the 10th straight week.
CARA, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, is legislation Sen. Portman co-sponsored in February 2015 that would provide state and local communities with more funding and resource opportunities to combat the opioid and heroin addiction.
In a conference call Tuesday, Sen. Portman said CARA is in the final stages of completion as Congress negotiates the final version of the bill to be sent to the president.
“We are already working very closely with the House on the similarities between the two bills and some of the differences, working out some common ground. I’ll be on the floor again this week just as I have done every single week since the Senate passed CARA by a 94-1 vote,” said Portman. Portman has given 10 speeches on opioid and heroin addiction and the CARA legislation, which are available for viewing online at portman.senate.gov.
In the House of Representatives May 13, CARA passed by a vote of 400-5, according to data provided by congress.gov.
“It will be the 10th time I have gone on the floor to call attention to the epidemic. To talk about what’s happened in the last week, which is not good news, unfortunately, more stories of people overdosing and of crime in our communities. I’m hopeful that these speeches are raising awareness of the problem but also help to push to get it done and get it to the president. In the speeches I talk a lot about the fact that we need to remove the stigma, we need to emphasis the fact that addiction is a disease that has to be treated like other diseases,” said Portman.
Senator Portman said this is the first time for the House of Representatives and Senate to go on record in addressing opioid and heroin addiction issues. Portman said he doesn’t believe the White House will delay the CARA conference.
“I think it’s been not just bi-partisan but non-partisan from the start. We’ve spent three years working on this legislation. We had five conferences here in Washington. House, Senate, Republican, Democrat, anybody who was interested, we took their ideas,” said Portman.
CARA, once signed into law by the president, would affect different aspects of opioid and heroin treatment, prevention, and education.
It would provide more training to law enforcement, criminal justice, mental health, and substance abuse personnel in treating opioid and heroin addiction.
Services and treatment for veterans and pregnant women affected by opioid and heroin addiction would be expanded.
Section 1003 of the legislation would provide grants to states to develop residential pilot programs for pregnant and postpartum women and identify gaps in services available to nonresidential treatment.
The law would also streamline the ability of states to license veterans who served in the Armed Forces to be emergency medical technicians in states where there are shortages of EMTs.
Section 503 would require states to compile reports on the efforts taken to establish Good Samaritan laws that exempt any individuals from criminal liability who administer overdose reversal drugs or call for emergency services during an overdose.
Rural communities are addressed in the legislation in Section 3024, which would provide equitable distribution of funds to rural communities with opioid use and overdose-related deaths.
“This is about saving lives and not just saving the lives of people who die from overdoses but saving people who are affected in other ways by this epidemic, including those who have broken their family ties, their work ties,” said Portman. “People are looking for some help and this legislation will help when we get it working in our communities.”
As CARA would change some of the existing laws around opioid and heroin prevention, education, treatment, recovery, the Senator said the real story is the bi-partisan effort in Congress to pass this legislation.
“The House and Senate would go on record for the first time really in addressing this issue in a very direct way and understanding that it is a disease and it has to be treated as such,” said Portman.
Tony Coder, the assistant director of Drug Free Alliance, has worked with Sen. Portman on the CARA legislation to advocate for expanding treatment, education, and prevention in communities.
“Addiction is a disease. People who have substance abuse issues are not bad people. They have substance abuse issues,” said Coder. “Addiction is not a disease that attacks bad people, addiction is a disease of the brain. If folks can understand this is a disease, and not ‘I’m making bad decisions so I must be a bad person’ then we hope they’ll get treatment. This is a disease, not a moral problem.”
Coder said if people can understand that addiction is a medical condition instead of a moral condition then they will be more likely to “go seek medical treatment, like any other disease.”
“We are happy to be working with the Senator on this important piece of legislation. We have five people a day dying in Ohio from overdoses,” said Coder. “One of the things that we are really excited about is that money would be going to communities. I think there is something like $80 million that would be satisfied in this legislation.”
On a local level, Fayette County community members have been working with local and state officials to make suggestions to CARA legislation, according to Dan Dean, a Fayette County Commissioner.
“We’re hoping the CARA will have some funding in it—I know a big part of it is for prevention—there will be some money in that for treatment as well. We are trying to come up with a treatment program that will help people get their lives back, to get back on track, to get where they can function, work, hold jobs, and be a help to their families again,” said Dean.
Dean said a group of people in the county have been meeting monthly to discuss the possible treatment and prevention programs that could be implemented in Fayette County. He said the group is compromised of Washington Court House City Council members, commissioners, the health department, the sheriff’s office, and the hospital.
“We’re getting closer and closer to an end product here. We’re trying to get public money, donations, to put it with public money,” said Dean. “What’s been so encouraging working with this group is that we have our whole community organizing together to combat this problem. I can guarantee you that everybody is working as quickly and as hard as we can to tackle this problem.”
Dean said the group has addressed the need for a men’s residential recovery facility in Fayette County and is looking for a location and securing more money to fund the project.
Dustin Mets, CEO of CompDrug, said addiction is not a partisan issue. CompDrug is a central Ohio 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization with a federally recognized opioid and heroin treatment program licensed by the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.
“What Senator Portman and the other co-signers were able to do was put together a truly comprehensive bill. It addresses issues that often are not addressed,” said Mets. “We’re in the midst of an epidemic. Two things: it brought to the Senate and the House discussion about what’s happening and discussion about what’s happening at kitchen tables back home. You probably know someone suffering from opiate addiction or at the very least you know someone who is dealing with someone dealing with opiate addiction, that’s how pervasive it is. It’s hitting everybody, especially in Ohio.”
Mets said Ohio families need to understand addiction as a brain disease and that it should not be stigmatized.
“It’s people we love and we care about. What CARA was able to do was mobilize that at a national level. There’s not many pieces of legislation that can do that. It will have an impact—not could—it will have an impact. The senators and Senator Portman and the House members put a lot of work into this,” said Mets. “This was an overwhelming majority that passed an incredibly important bill. I can’t remember when addiction was on the national agenda like this. Usually it’s stigmatized. And here it has passed with overwhelming bi-partisan support. It was a great effort.”
Mets said there needs to be more availability of treatment and more availability of education to why treatment works.
“Multiple parts of CARA will hit at getting treatment to areas where it doesn’t exist,” said Mets.
He said CompDrug is currently serving 34 counties in Ohio, with people who have addiction issues in rural counties being magnetized to the treatment locations in Columbus.
“We’re not necessarily welcome in some rural parts of the state. What CARA is going to help do is provide some help in those areas to supplement treatment in areas that don’t have it,” said Mets.
Reach Ashley Bunton at the Record-Herald (740) 313-0356 or on Twitter @ashbunton