U.S. Sen. Rob Portman: Taking on the addiction epidemic within the pandemic

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 2, 2021

EDITOR”S NOTE: The following is an excerpt of remarks delivered by Sen. Portman on Monday on the floor of the U.S. Senate:

“In the past 19 months or so, our attention has understandably been directed towards the COVID-19 crisis.

And, once again, we see with omicron the possibility of another variant coming and those public health challenges are real.

But I’ve got to tell you, it’s led us to ignore another crisis. The Centers for Disease Control recently issued a report which was shocking and should serve as a wake-up call to all of us.

It said that between April of 2020 and April 2021, the most recent period for which we have data, we had over 100,000 individuals lose their lives to drug overdose deaths in this country.

That’s the highest ever. It’s a record.

By the way, 100,000 deaths per year is more than the deaths from gunshot wounds and the deaths from car accidents combined.

It’s truly the epidemic within the pandemic. Away from the headlines, we have this other tragic health care crisis that has left no part of the country unaffected.

Forty-six states and the District of Columbia have seen their overdose rates go up in the last year 26 percent increase in my home state of Ohio.

In some states, there are now as many drug overdose deaths as there are COVID-19 deaths.

Like many of you, I’ve seen firsthand the damage drugs like crystal meth or cocaine or heroin or now the synthetic opioids are causing to the families we represent, the people who have gotten caught in that spiral of drug abuse and addiction.

I’ve also seen the heroic efforts of first responders who have saved people’s lives by administering naloxone, which some call Narcan – its brand name.

It’s a miracle drug that literally saves lives by being able to reverse the effects of an overdose. And I have ridden with law enforcement and treatment providers on rapid response teams in various places in Ohio that follow up with those who have overdosed.

Literally somebody overdoses and then this rapid response team usually made up of law enforcement, but also treatment providers, social workers, go to people’s homes. And it’s amazing what you find out. I was, frankly, a little surprised during my first visit.

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Most people who are approached by these rapid response teams agree to get into treatment. And isn’t that the key?

Using Narcan again and again and again to save someone’s life is not the answer.

The answer is to get that person into treatment so that person can get back to his or her family, his or her work and a more normal life and to be more productive in life.

I’ve also met with families and loved ones affected, hearing their stories about how losing a family member to addiction has had such a negative impact, often tearing those families apart.

And of course, I’ve talked to a lot of people in recovery who’ve told me about the grip of addiction on their lives and how they got help and what worked and what didn’t work.

Unfortunately, a lot of people get help, get into treatment and it doesn’t work for them, and they have to do it again and again. But ultimately, for those who can stay in recovery, are able to stay sober and clean, they have the most amazing stories, and so many of them are coming back and contributing in big ways to our communities, many helping others.

Their recovery basically is reaching out to others and helping them along the way. Some are called recovery coaches, which is a more formal title, but so many of them are in effect recovery coaches, helping others who are struggling.

There are so many lives that have been touched by this crisis, 100,000 plus deaths, but so many others affected.

And I’ve made it a goal of mine to make sure Congress is playing its role in addressing this effort that must be at the community level, at the state level, but also at the national level, to respond to what is a true national crisis.

What makes this especially heartbreaking to me is that only a few years ago, we had finally begun to make progress on this.

We were beginning to turn the corner. We were seeing lower addiction rates. We were seeing lower overdose deaths for the first time in decades.

How do we do it? Well, we redoubled our efforts on prevention, on getting people into treatment, on getting people into longer term recovery, and making more naloxone available.

Thanks to the bipartisan leadership here in Congress, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, or CARA, which I co-authored with my colleague Sheldon Whitehouse, and the 21st Century Cures Act were both signed into law in 2016, helping to pave the way for several billion dollars in new federal funding to strengthen state, local and nonprofit efforts to combat addiction.

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Washington can and should be a partner to the state and local groups on the ground every day working to combat this crisis.

We should be a better partner. We’ve got to all work together to find constructive solutions to the addiction epidemic and ensure more Americans don’t suffer in silence and that we don’t lose more lives to these deadly drugs, but instead ensure that more Americans can achieve their god given potential in life.”

Rob Portman is a Republican and the junior U.S. senator representing Ohio. His office can be reached at 212-224-3353.