A Q&A with Congressman Rogers

Hon. Harold "Hal" Rogers

Hon. Harold “Hal” Rogers

Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers (KY-5th) is the co-founder and co-chair of the U.S. House Congressional Caucus on Prescription Drug Abuse. It was his leadership and vision that led to the creation of Operation UNITE, host of the fifth annual National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit. We posed a few questions to Congressman Rogers about this year’s Summit.

Summit: This year the Summit added heroin to its name. Isn’t the primary focus on prescription drugs? How are the two related?

Congressman Rogers: The prescription drug abuse epidemic has actually prefaced the deadly rise in heroin overdoses. Those abusing highly addictive prescription painkillers often turn to heroin as a cheap alternative. As a result, heroin in America has increased 63 percent over the last decade. As I understand it, the emergence of the powerful synthetic fentanyl on the black market has dramatically increased the potency of heroin and heroin-related deaths along with it. FBI Director James Comey recently testified in a Congressional budget hearing, saying fentanyl is 40 to 50 times more powerful than heroin. Once the two are mixed, the cocktail can kill users almost instantly.

As we search for solutions, we have to understand where the addiction begins. Unfortunately, in America, overprescribing is a problem. Dr. Tom Frieden, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recently reported that while the amount of pain reported by Americans has not changed since 2000, we now see four times the amount of opioids prescribed. In fact, in 2013, he said healthcare providers wrote 249 million prescriptions for painkillers – enough to give every American adult their own bottle of pills.

Summit: You have been a vocal champion for those fighting to prevent abuse of prescription opioid medications. Though your views have not always meshed with the views of top administration officials, many of these same officials will be attending the Summit this year. Why do you believe this is the case?

Congressman Rogers: We’re losing 100 Americans every day to overdoses from prescription drug abuse and heroin, and it’s heartbreaking to know so many are losing a battle that they can win with help. This is a truly non-partisan issue, as it takes all of us working together to curb the deadly tide of drug abuse in America and inspire real change, from the Commander-in-Chief to local police chiefs and treatment professionals and everyone in between. We are all in the business of saving lives and that is a hard fact that no one can debate.

Summit: In the past year it seems more of our elected representatives from both parties are speaking up about this crisis. What do you think has motivated such movement now as opposed to one or two years ago, for instance?

Congressman Rogers: For many years, the issue of drug abuse was taboo — too heartbreaking or too embarrassing for families and communities to talk about publicly. The true success of the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit is the monumental awareness that it has raised nationwide, in both the public and private sectors. If we can talk about it in our small, rural towns in eastern Kentucky, where everyone knows each other, we can talk about it from Florida to California and every state in between.

Thanks to this arena at the Summit, we are not only sharing important success stories between community advocacy groups, but we’re breaking down the silos between law enforcement, treatment and education. There’s more communication about the challenges we face across the board, and more leaders are now realizing where they can make a difference at the federal, state and local levels.

Summit: What are the top legislative priorities that citizens should have their Representatives and Senators support?

Congressman Rogers: I am pleased that so many members in both chambers have rallied in a non-partisan fashion to address this challenge. The Congressional Caucus on Prescription Drug Abuse has grown to 45 members in the House of Representatives, and Senators Manchin and Scott have started a similar caucus in the U.S. Senate. Together, these members have been working on a number of bills that approach the opioid epidemic from a holistic perspective, incorporating aggressive enforcement, increased access to treatment, and sufficient education so that people understand the dangers these pills pose.

The Senate recently passed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), and House Leadership plans to take up similar legislation in the next few weeks. In addition to comprehensive legislation like CARA, there are a number of bills that take an incremental approach to addressing these challenges. For example, I have recently cosponsored legislation with Congressman Mooney from West Virginia that would sever the link between mandatory Medicare patient satisfaction surveys and doctor reimbursement. This will be important to ensure doctors are prescribing unburdened by concerns about potential negative survey responses and corresponding CMS reimbursement cuts. I have also co-sponsored Congresswoman Katherine Clark’s bill that would give a pharmacist the authority to partially fill a prescription if a patient does not wish to take all of the pills home with them.

As the year progresses, I look forward to working with my colleagues to put all the pieces together and tackle this crisis head-on.

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