In the News

By: Jessica Bartlett

Massachusetts Democratic Congresswoman Katherine Clark found herself an unlikely ally in President Donald Trump on Wednesday, when he signed into law two of her bills aimed at addressing the opioid epidemic.

The bills address two sides of the crisis. One is meant to combat a shortage of employees in substance use disorder treatment centers by offering loan repayment for health care professionals who work in the field. The other will require all prescriptions for controlled substances prescribed to Medicare beneficiaries to be electronically prescribed by 2021.

Both bills were drafted by Clark's office, and received bipartisan support. Clark spoke with the Boston Business Journal about the legislation in the wake of Trump's signing.

Where did the ideas for these two bills originate?
Both of these bills came from conversations with families and health care providers in my district. Whether I’m meeting families after town halls or office hours throughout my district, I hear the same heartbreaking story. People (are) looking for treatment for their loved one and are having a hard time accessing the help they need. At the same time, I’ve had discussions with treatment providers in my district, in Arlington and Waltham and also in other parts of Massachusetts, where their concern is being able to recruit and retain treatment providers for their programs. If we can increase the workforce, then we feel we can give families better access to the help they need and deserve.

What (the first) bill does, which was part of a comprehensive opioid package signed by the President, was create a student loan repayment program, where the first day you go to work as a treatment provider in a range of roles we want to be able to support, from social workers to doctors, you get your student loans paid for that year up to $250,000 in total benefits if you work six years in a treatment program.

We’ve seen other student loan-based programs be successful, and this work is work people want to do. Help with student loans can make what are low-paying wages go further, and can allow people to stay and have the incentive to stay for a good period of time.

Where will the funding come from?
The money will come out of the budget. It will flow through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and we hope it will be available in roughly a year from now, in 2020.

What’s the total cost of this program?
In this legislation, there is funding for the first five years at $125 million.

President Trump also signed a law mandating electronic prescribing. How did you build bipartisan support for it?
We were able to put together bipartisan support and we got a cosponsor, a Republican from Oklahoma (Markwayne Mullin). He reps a part of Oklahoma ravaged by opioids as much as Massachusetts. I’ve found that the work around the opioid crisis has been an area where we can build relationships and work across the aisle. It’s affecting so many of our communities across the country.

This bill also came out of discussions with health care providers and advocates in my district, but it’s applicable across the country. We know this crisis started at the prescription pad and we’re still battling an oversupply of opioids in our community. What this bill would do would be to require, by the next two years, that if you’re a prescriber for Medicare part D, that prescriptions be done electronically. We think this is a great way for the federal government to support providers in giving good care for their patients, while at the same time reducing fraud and doctor-shopping in the Medicare system.

How does this complement Massachusetts’ work on the prescription monitoring program?
This is a great start and we hope (it) will be complementary to states efforts to move to e-prescribing and use the best technology we have to help us reduce the oversupply of opioids in our communities and neighborhoods.

The problem is getting states to talk to one another. The effectiveness of having a Medicare system builds a national database so our health care providers can best understand where there are signs of abuse and fraud, so we can all help get patients the care they need, the management for their pain when necessary, but cut down on where we find people using the system, crossing state lines, getting additional prescriptions fraudulently, and redistributing the opioids legally obtained, then being sold and abused on a different level.

Were you surprised Trump signed legislation that originated from a Massachusetts Democrat?
We’re always heartened when we’re able to function the way Congress should, that the problems and challenges families bring to me that we can put together commonsense solutions and they actually become law. That’s the way Congress is supposed to function. Too often, we feel the voices of families back home get drowned out by special interests. I think this is a moment to celebrate. We were able to pass a comprehensive package that we hope will give tools and resources to families and health care providers and to states to address this public health crisis. While they are all commonsense provisions (that are) much needed, it’s always a legislative process that has a lot of ups and downs before you get to the final product. We were delighted to see both of these provisions included and come through the bill with the funding attached.

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Original story here.