West Virginia senators vote to pass bipartisan opioid bill

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TAYLOR COUNTY, W.Va. (WDTV) - Bipartisanship in Washington is rare these days.

Image Source: USDA / MGN

Lawmakers are however almost unanimously united in fighting the opioid epidemic. The U.S. Senate on Monday passed a sweeping and comprehensive bipartisan bill that aims at curbing the national crisis.

The vote was 99-1, with Senator Mike Lee (R - Utah) casting the only dissenting vote.

West Virginia Senators Shelly Moore Capito (R) and Joe Manchin (D) voted in favor of the bill and spoke with 5 News Tuesday about the legislation.

"Not a whole lot has happened around here for a long time that was bipartisan," Sen. Manchin said. "It shows you the range of effect that opioid addiction has on this entire country...We have come together on this bill, but there's much more work to be done."

Sen. Capito co-sponsored the bill and has 24 provisions in it.

"I see this as a big win for West Virginia, but it's a process," Sen. Capito said. "We are probably in the middle of the process, and we need to make sure we are aggressive in finding the solutions."

Part of the bill focuses re-federal funds on states that have been hit the hardest by the opioid crisis, like West Virginia. That would help fund treatment and rehabilitation centers, something Shawn Thorton, Threat Preparedness and Crisis Response Coordinator at the Grafton - Taylor County Health Department. said is desperately needed.

"Without these treatment facilities, people won't have the time it takes to get clean," Thorton said. "You can't get clean with a 30-day detox when you're dealing with heroin, opioids and methamphetamines. They need six months. They need a year."

Thorton said he hopes resources in the future will go toward not just punishing drug users, but helping them re-enter society.

"You can get a person clean, but if you haven't given them the skills they need to go get an honest job and be a productive member of society, they're just going to swing right back into where they were before."

Another component of the bill involves educating medical professionals, children and the general public about the risks of opioid abuse.

Thorton hopes that education extends beyond the effects opioids have on the users.

"We must educate the public that this is a public issue and it affects everyone," Thorton said. "If we're not all together and agree to help people get clean and be productive, we're never going to fix the problem."

One of Sen. Capito's provisions in the bill involves securing new family resources to help children and families affected by the opioid epidemic.

"We focus a lot on the drug users and the addict, which is where our focus should be, but I think we realize we've got all kinds of other issues surrounding families, children, and foster care, which are issues we need to address," Capito said.

The bill also restricts opioids doctors can prescribe, cracks down on drugs sent through the mail, and holds other federal agencies accountable to enforce drug laws.

Pharmaceuticals under the bill will be incentivized to research and develop a non-addictive painkiller, something both senators praised.

"We've had the ability, we've always had the ingenuity and the technology to make this happen," Sen. Manchin said. "Get these addictive opioids off the market as quickly as we can, and make sure that we can take care of people's pain suppression as best we can."

"Let's stop this problem where we know it starts, which is an addiction to painkillers," Sen. Capito said. "As you see us trying to figure out the spectrum of solutions, you see us putting more of an emphasis on the areas that we know have been successful in our state and other places."

In a separate press release, Capito said the Opioid Crisis Responce Act is a step in the right direction to solving the problem, but that work still needs done.

“This isn’t a silver bullet, but it is an important part of a much broader solution. I will continue working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to get this legislation to the president’s desk and to take additional action that will help us make even more progress in fighting the opioid epidemic.”

There were 72,000 overdose deaths in the U.S. last year, according to the Center for Disease Control. 30,000 of those were opioid-related deaths. West Virginia experienced more than 1,000 overdose deaths in 2017, around 86 percent of which were blamed on opioids.

To put the numbers in perspective, Manchin compared the number of overdose deaths to the number of American lives lost in the Vietnam War:

"Over a ten-year period of the Vietnam War, we had about 59,000 deaths," Sen. Manchin said. "As we watched on television nightly news from the comfort of our living room, we were watching Americans getting killed. It had a profound effect.

"Now we have more people in one year dying in one year than we did in a ten-year period from the Vietnam War. It's the silent killer. Can you imagine if, on television, we were showing people that are dying, that have overdosed lying all over the streets of America? You think families would speak out.

"Something has to incense people to say, 'This is unacceptable in our society.' They have to get as outraged as they were against an unfounded war and one that we never should have gotten into. Until that happens, I'm not sure how quickly it will end."