WASHINGTON (AP) — Over Democratic objections, Republican bargainers reached agreement Wednesday on compromise House-Senate legislation reinforcing federal anti-drug programs, edging the two chambers toward what they hope to tout as an election-year achievement.
The measure creates grants and other programs aimed at addressing a soaring problem that caused more than 47,000 U.S. drug abuse fatalities in 2014, the most recent federal figures, and a death rate that has more than doubled since 2000.
Most of those deaths were caused by heroin and opioids, potentially addictive medications that are prescribed to kill pain. The government has estimated that more than 2 million Americans have opioid abuse problems, plus nearly 500,000 more who are heroin addicts.
Democratic bargainers were refusing to back the package, complaining that actual money for its programs would have to wait for future legislation. Republicans defeated two Democratic efforts to add more than $900 million to the measure, and in a letter Democratic negotiators said they wouldn't back legislation that lacks money "that reflects the seriousness of the epidemic."
President Barack Obama has proposed an additional $1.1 billion for such programs. The White House has not said if he would sign the measure without fresh funds.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, is among senators facing competitive re-election races this fall who have pushed for added funds, but are backing passage without the extra money. Portman said in a statement Wednesday that the bill "will make a real difference in helping Americans put their lives back together."
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., said the House could consider the measure as early as Friday, with Senate debate likely to come later.
The bill contains grants for expanding treatment programs, boosting the availability of drugs that reverse overdoses and improving emergency workers' training.
Recovery services for addicts would be expanded, states could get financial incentives for providing a full range of opioid abuse services, and more medical workers would be allowed to prescribe buprenorphine, which can wean people off opioids.
According to the Addiction Policy Forum, which focuses on drug abuse issues, the federal government already spends about $8 billion yearly on addiction efforts, spread among 32 programs. The new measure would add less than $200 million annually to that amount and is aimed at filling in gaps in existing initiatives.
"Let's not play politics," said Jessica Hulsey Nickel, the forum's executive director. She said Congress should follow up this legislation by approving bills "that will actually provide the needed funding for this fight."
The House and Senate approved initial versions of the legislation earlier this year by overwhelming, bipartisan margins.