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Scott Olson/Getty Images

Washington is still falling behind in helping to address the country's opioid crisis, some lawmakers and policy experts say, even as the epidemic rages on across the country. Congress recently provided $6 billion for the effort, and it's getting the ball rolling on another legislative push as well. But lawmakers aren't yet sure what that push will entail.

Why it matters: Roughly 64,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2016; the overwhelming majority of those cases involved some combination of prescription painkillers, synthetic opioids or heroin. Yet because the problem is so sweeping, the push for a policy response is being pulled in several directions — from immediate treatment to law enforcement to community rebuilding to new medical practices.

What's next: The Energy and Commerce Committee is going to begin a legislative push later this month. The committee is particularly interested in opioid distributors, which it's been investigating for a while now, "but the manufacturers will be a focus as well," chairman Greg Walden said.

In the Senate, the HELP Committee plans to mark up an opioid bill toward the end of March.

  • Sens. Rob Portman and Sheldon Whitehouse, who co-sponsored the opioid bill Congress passed in 2016, said they're working on a followup.

Yes, but: When you ask members to get specific about what they'd like to do, most don't have much of an answer, beyond providing extra funding. And at the same time, they're still trying to address gaps in the steps they've already taken.

  • Sen. Roy Blunt said the Senate Appropriations health care subcommittee does not yet know what it wants to do with the $6 billion set aside for opioid response in Congress' big budget deal.
  • "My inclination is that whatever we do, we ought to be doing on a basis of trying to give an amount of flexibility that we can figure out what’s working and what’s not working," he added, reflecting an attitude shared by many Republicans.
  • “We’re catching up, in terms of the funding for treatment. That’s one of the big issues," Portman told me. And "in our original CARA Act, we had authorization for a national prevention program. That never happened. And so once again, we’re going to promote a national program to focus on education and prevention."

Although most experts agree more money is needed, there's no consensus about how best to spend it.

  • "More money’s needed, but I don’t know whether there’s enough direction given by Congress on how it ought to be spent," Sen. Chuck Grassley told me. “I think it’s a rapidly growing problem ... We know some things to do, but we don’t know that everything we’re trying is going to work.”
  • "Money’s important, but we’ve got to get the policy right too. So you’ll see some initiatives announced here pretty soon," Walden said.
I’ve had more deaths every year, so how can you be on track? And how can you be winning when you're losing more people?
— Sen. Joe Manchin

The Trump administration has declared the opioid crisis a national emergency, but that declaration didn’t come with any new money. And the White House has largely focused on anti-drug advocacy, which most experts see as only a small part of any eventual solution.

  • The exception is the Food and Drug Administration. Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has publicly embraced medication-assisted therapy, and the FDA told the makers of one powerful painkiller to stop selling its product.

The other side: Independent Sen. Angus King called the new funding a "very good start," and listed off specific ideas about what else needs to be done: increasing the number of treatment beds; increasing the number of detox facilities; and creating more of a federal role in addiction prevention.

Of course, Democrats are more than happy to hit on the administration for its weak response.

  • "There is no all-hands-on-deck in federal agencies to combat this epidemic," said Sen. Sherrod Brown. "There’s been no sort of moon shot about doing this biggest public health problem in decades, and so they’ve fallen fall short.”
  • "Republicans tried to cut $800 billion from Medicaid, which is the primary payer for addiction treatment," said Sen. Chris Murphy. "I think Republicans are clearly not interested in working on the opioid epidemic."

Go deeper

12 hours ago - Health

FDA advisory panel recommends Pfizer boosters for those 65 and older

A healthcare worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at the Key Biscayne Community Center on Aug. 24, 2021. Photo: Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A key Food and Drug Administration advisory panel on Friday overwhelmingly voted against recommending Pfizer vaccine booster shots for younger Americans, but unanimously recommended approving the third shots for individuals 65 and older, as well as those at high-risk of severe COVID-19.

Why it matters: While the votes are non-binding, and the FDA must still make a final decision, Friday's move pours cold water on the Biden administration's plan to begin administering boosters to most individuals who received the Pfizer vaccine later this month.

12 hours ago - World

France recalls ambassadors from U.S. and Australia over submarine deal

Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L), French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (C), and French ambassador to the U.S. Philippe Etienne. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

France has taken the extraordinary step of recalling its ambassadors to the U.S. and Australia after both countries blindsided their French allies with a new military pact and submarine contract, the French Foreign Ministry announced on Friday.

The backstory: While sealing an agreement with the U.S. and U.K. to acquire nuclear submarines, Australia ripped up an existing $90 billion submarine deal with France. That led senior French officials to accuse the U.S. of a "stab in the back."

Updated 13 hours ago - World

In reversal, Pentagon now says drone strike killed 10 Afghan civilians

Caskets for the dead are carried towards the gravesite as relatives and friends attend a mass funeral for members of a family that is said to have been killed in a U.S. drone airstrike, in Kabul on Aug. 30. Photo: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A U.S. drone strike launched on Aug. 29 killed 10 civilians in Afghanistan, including seven children, rather than the Islamic State extremists the Biden administration claimed it targeted, the Pentagon said Friday.

Why it matters: U.S. Central Command said at the time that officials "know" the drone strike "disrupted an imminent ISIS-K threat" to Kabul's airport, and that they were "confident we successfully hit the target."

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