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Trump Signs Sweeping New Legislation To Address Opioid Epidemic


Republicans and Democrats don't agree on much these days, but they have all felt the pain of the nation's opioid epidemic. Last year, more than 70,000 Americans died from a drug overdose. Opioids were responsible for about two-thirds of those deaths.

At the White House today, President Trump signed legislation that will allow lawmakers from both parties to say they are taking steps to address the problem. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The opioid bill was passed by both the House and Senate with near-unanimous approval, a level of bipartisan support that Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio says is unusual in today's highly polarized political climate.

ROB PORTMAN: I guess maybe because the severity of the crisis. And particularly in states like mine, people are willing to work together and join hands and figure out how to solve it and forget the politics.

HORSLEY: Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire agrees. The opioid crisis cuts a wide and deadly swath from rural areas to big cities. And polls show it's the rare issue that voters in both parties are alarmed by.

MAGGIE HASSAN: We are losing over a hundred people a day in the United States of America to this epidemic. You can go anywhere in the country and talk to people about the impact it's had on them. This is impacting people in all walks of life in multiple different ways.

HORSLEY: The opioid bill signed by the president today aims to address the problem in different ways, targeting both supply and demand. President Trump signed the bill with some fanfare in the White House East Room almost exactly a year after he declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Together, we are going to end the scourge of drug addiction in America. We are going to end it, or we are going to at least make an extremely big dent in this terrible, terrible problem.

HORSLEY: Lots of politicians are claiming credit after the bill signing, as the measure incorporates lots of different ideas - efforts to interdict drugs at the border, for example, and to increase support for drug users seeking treatment.

What the bill doesn't include is a whole lot of new money to fight the problem. Hassan says lawmakers have approved some $6 billion to combat opioid addiction over the next couple of years.

HASSAN: But experts in the field tell us that is not nearly enough. We have to treat this as a starting point. We have a lot more work to do.

HORSLEY: Portman wants to see more effort to address overprescribing of opioids, noting that many addicts start out with a legitimate need for pain pills. But, he adds, despair also plays a role.

PORTMAN: Part of the answer to this is to get people who are in places like small-town Ohio, rural Appalachia more opportunities. That is, I think, one of the antidotes to the drug issue more broadly.

HORSLEY: Health Secretary Alex Azar said this week there are some encouraging signs that the epidemic may be leveling off, or at least not growing as rapidly as it once was.

But drug addiction remains an elusive and evolving problem. Overdose deaths from heroin and prescription drugs may be near their peak, but Portman says methamphetamine is regaining a foothold, and cocaine is making a comeback as well.

PORTMAN: You know, it's a societal issue we have. America has a bigger drug problem than other countries - not just opioids, but we, by far, lead the world. And we need to focus on that broader issue.

HORSLEY: For now, though, today's bill-signing gives members of Congress something they can point to when confronted with the pain of the drug epidemic back home. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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