Congressman Bill Johnson: President offers bold plan to fight scourge of opioid epidemic

The Hill

By Congressman Bill Johnson (OH-6)

President Trump recognized the opioid crisis ravaging our nation before he was elected, and as a member of his Presidential Task Force on Opioids, I’ve witnessed firsthand his dedication to this important issue. I certainly agreed with the president’s decision late last year to declare the opioid epidemic a national emergency. We must call it what it is – burying our heads in the sand and wishing it would go away isn’t the answer.

The president’s bold vision very clearly lays out a plan to: reduce opioid demand and prevent over-prescription; increase research and development to find alternative non-opioid treatments; and, get tough on those who illegally bring in and distribute these deadly drugs. The opioid epidemic can be traced, in part, to misguided medical responses to pain management and an initial misunderstanding by the medical community of the addictive potential of opioids. While the increased focus on overprescribing and diversion of prescription pain medications, including from this administration, has begun to increase awareness, there is much more work to be done.

The president’s call for an evidence-based, public awareness campaign is an important component of this plan. Communicating clearly with the American people about the gravity of the issue and showing the seriousness with which this administration is taking this crisis is critical. I also believe that the medical education community can, and should, play a vital role in this effort by ensuring that tomorrow’s health care professionals are fully equipped to recognize and treat addiction and to responsibly manage pain.  

An effective plan must also address the need to help those struggling with addiction, including those who are in the criminal justice system because of a substance abuse issue. Without long-term treatment, recidivism among the addicted is high, because while they may become drug-free while incarcerated, the lack of support and continued treatment after their release leaves them especially vulnerable to relapse. By increasing support for drug courts, which can offer evidence-based treatment alternatives to prison, and providing connections to community treatment services and residential reentry centers after release from prison, we can offer help and hope to people whose only crime was to fall victim to the disease of addiction.

I’m also encouraged by the recent announcement that the Department of Labor will provide $21 million in grants to increase workforce training opportunities for those impacted by the opioid epidemic. Getting people back into the workforce is vital to ensure a sustainable recovery for individuals, families, and communities.

The president also called for on-demand, evidence-based addiction treatment for military service members, veterans and their families eligible for care through the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs. This administration has made veterans a priority, and I’m heartened to see this service included in the president’s plan.

Of course, cutting off the flow of illegal drugs coming across our borders into our communities is a must. Whatever one thinks of President Trump’s immigration policies, we can all agree on the need to stop these drugs from entering the country. This means tougher border security is necessary to cut off the supply. It also requires strengthening criminal penalties for major traffickers.

Eastern and Southeastern Ohio have been hit particularly hard by the opioid crisis. There isn’t a single day that goes by that I do not hear or read another heartbreaking story. I’ve said many times before that this is not a problem we as a country are going to be able to arrest, incarcerate, spend, or legislate our way out of – we all must work together, as Americans. I’ve visited and met with countless volunteers and others dedicated to turning the tide locally. They recognize, as do I, that addiction does not discriminate by age, race, social class, economic status or political affiliation.

Combatting this epidemic is also a bipartisan issue – a rarity in Washington these days. I’ve worked with many Republicans and Democrats who are just as concerned as I am, and are seeing and hearing similarly tragic stories. The resolve is there. Now, the president, his Cabinet, and his team are stepping up and saying loud and clear what so many of us across the country are saying: Enough is enough, and it’s time to extinguish this scourge of opioid addiction from our communities.

Bill Johnson represents Ohio’s 6th District and is a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee.