Bipartisan group looks past health reform fight to focus on drug policy

Rep. Annie Kuster, D-New Hampshire, speaks at a news conference of the Bipartisan Heroin Task Force. Among the members is Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Sedona, third from left. (Photo by Nathan J. Fish/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of House members unveiled a raft of proposals Tuesday aimed at combating the nation’s drug epidemic, saying they felt compelled to come together on what is not a partisan issue but “an American issue.”

Recommendations from the Bipartisan Heroin Task Force – which focused on preventing overdoses, addiction recovery, synthetic drug awareness and more – come as Democrats and Republicans are engaged in a bitter fight over health care reform. But task force members said the issue of drug addiction is one that they have all seen in their districts.

Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Sedona, said the drug epidemic is, “something that we have to make sure that we try to get under control as much as possible.” He said that just this week in Arizona there have been 115 overdoses and 15 drug-related deaths, “numbers that are not sustainable. No death is a good death.”

Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-New Jersey, said it’s not often that a Capitol Hill news conference features members from both sides of the aisle, but that Tuesday they were “standing together on an issue that matters to all of us equally.”

“This is a partnership among all of us, among government, not-for-profit, business community, and it’s a partnership among Republicans and Democrats,” MacArthur said. “We’ll do what we’ll do together.”

Task force members highlighted a legislative agenda that covered five categories: prevention, treatment, law enforcement, children and families, and veteran’s affairs.

Each category includes a bill or bills sponsored by one or more of the members, aimed at combating the problems of drugs in the United States. Bills range from increased funding for drug-screening gear at the border to studies on the effects of synthetic drug use, greater flexibility for use of health savings accounts to creation of treatment centers for infants exposed to opioids during their mother’s pregnancy.

-Cronkite News video by Noelle Lilley

O’Halleran said before the event that he is concerned over how treatment in drug-related cases will be paid for without the Affordable Care Act.

“The cost associated with this has to be borne somewhere and right now the Affordable Care Act allows for some level of care for people to be treated,” O’Halleran said. “If we move out to a future where that’s going to go away, it just multiples the battle that we have to fight.”

But O’Halleran, a former narcotics officer in Chicago, said he saw “very serious problems” then, but that “this is something that is totally out of control right now.”

“It’s not a blue issue or a red issue, it’s an American issue,” said Rep. Donald Norcross, D-New Jersey, said. “We can agree on saving lives.”

Lawmakers claim there are 90 members on their task force, about a dozen of whom showed up Tuesday. Rep. Ann Kuster, D-New Hampshire, said that while they don’t agree on everything, “We have a great deal of bipartisan agreement.”

That was echoed by MacArthur, who said members “do what we can do together.”

“We’re not going to agree on every issue, and healthcare is probably the issue of our time,” MacArthur said. “I think I can say for all of us, ‘We are all committed.'”