For years, the United States has struggled to overcome an epidemic of addiction that has devastated communities in Ohio and across the country. Unfortunately, recent data suggests that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic worsened this crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), at least 81,000 people died from a fatal drug overdose between June 2019 and May 2020 – the highest 12-month total in our nation’s history.
Before this spike, we were making real progress in the fight against addiction — in 2018, nationwide drug overdose deaths declined for the first time in nearly three decades. Federal laws I authored like the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) and CARA 2.0 provided state and local government and nonprofit groups with support for proven prevention, recovery, and treatment programs to help addicted individuals heal.
Over the past decade, I have visited addiction recovery centers, addiction and mental health boards, and nonprofits across Ohio, from Cleveland to Cincinnati, from Toledo to Portsmouth and beyond, to talk about what should be done to build on CARA. I took what I heard at those productive conversations back to Washington and got to work on the next step in the fight against addiction. The result is new bipartisan CARA 3.0 legislation I recently introduced to build on the successes of CARA and CARA 2.0 and expand its scope to ensure all Americans fighting addiction have the chance to overcome this disease. It will do so by addressing three important areas: research and education, treatment and recovery, and criminal justice reform.
First, CARA 3.0 will bolster our work to prevent drug abuse before it happens through funding for research and education. This includes a national drug awareness campaign and research and development of alternative pain treatment methods that don’t lead to addiction. And CARA 3.0 will also take the important step of addressing the disproportionate effect the addiction crisis has had on people in poverty and communities of color through a national commission to help develop better treatments and best practices for overdoses.
Second, our bill will build upon what works in how we treat addiction. It will double down on proven, evidence-based addiction treatment methods while expanding treatment options for groups particularly vulnerable to addiction, including young people, new and expecting mothers, rural communities, and communities of color. And it will make permanent the current expanded telehealth options for addiction treatment that were created in response to the social distancing required by the COVID-19 pandemic.
CARA 3.0 will also bolster the recovery options for individuals working to put addiction behind them through funding to support recovery support services and networks. It will enable physicians to provide medication-assisted addiction treatments like methadone and buprenorphine to a greater number of patients, and allow those drugs to be prescribed via telehealth for greater ease of access. Our bill will also destigmatize addiction recovery in the workplace by ensuring that taking one of these medications to treat addiction does not count as a drug-free workplace violation.
Finally, CARA 3.0 reforms our criminal justice system to ensure that those struggling with addiction, including our veterans, are treated with fairness and compassion by the law, putting them on a path to recovery instead of a downward spiral of abuse. Importantly, CARA 3.0 funds a Department of Justice grant program to help incarcerated individuals struggling with addiction to receive medication-assisted treatment while they are still in the criminal justice system. This is a key step in breaking the cycle of incarceration. It also empowers law enforcement officials to immediately direct individuals they encounter struggling with addiction to appropriate treatment services instead of arresting them. This will reduce stigma, help more individuals get treatment and minimize the risk of overdoses.
CARA and CARA 2.0 have given states and local communities new resources and authorities to make a real difference in our state. CARA 3.0 renews and strengthens these programs and provides a significant boost in funding as well. When added with existing CARA programs that are reauthorized through 2023, we will be investing well over $1 billion to address this long-standing epidemic, putting us on the path toward a brighter future free from addiction. The tragic rise in overdose deaths during COVID-19 underscores the need for CARA 3.0. My hope is that we can come together quickly and pass this important bipartisan legislation to once again turn the tide of addiction and help all Americans live up to their God-given potential.
Rob Portman is a United States senator from Ohio.