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Coverage Affordability, Drug Prices, and Opioid Epidemic Featured in U.S. Senate Hearings

January 09, 2018

During a hearing to vet Alex Azar, the nominee for Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), members of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee focused questions on the affordability of health insurance coverage, strategies to address skyrocketing drug prices, and the federal response to the opioid epidemic. 

Concurrently, the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee heard testimony from Sam Quinones, author of Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic, during the hearing entitled The Opioid Crisis: An Examination of How We Got Here and How We Move Forward.

In a HELP Committee hearing last year, HHS Secretary Nominee Azar indicated he would place a priority on four issue areas:

  • Addressing drug prices
  • Making health care more affordable
  • Harnessing Medicare to shift the health care system to pay for health and outcomes
  • Tackling the opioid epidemic

Senators today reiterated their prioritization of those issues. 

Mr. Azar pledged to look for ways to address the list prices of drugs that have sharply increased based on skewed incentives and promote the availability of generic drugs. On the Affordable Care Act, he cited concerns with the individual market, high deductible plans, and access to providers, but asserted he would make the programs work as well as possible. 

Pressed by U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) about commitment to the Medicaid program, Mr. Azar:

  • Reiterated his belief in the program as an important safety net
  • Spoke to the importance of both access to care and access to insurance

Senators also highlighted that Medicaid has been a crucial support for individuals with substance use disorder. Mr. Azar affirmed that he would work to ensure those individuals have the care they need in whatever reforms may be pursued.

Senators engaged in an in-depth conversation surrounding the opioid epidemic with author Sam Quinones in the Senate HELP Committee hearing.

In his testimony and in response to questions from Senator Casey, Mr. Quinones highlighted the importance of community level work to address the opioid epidemic, such as:

  • Project Bald Eagle in Lycoming County, PA
  • A tri-county effort in Armstrong, Clarion, and Indiana Counties to form community coalitions to educate youth about substance abuse. 

Mr. Quinones specifically spoke about the tri-county effort’s Addiction Recovery Mobile Outreach Team (ARMOT), which trains hospital staff to screen patients for drug problems and then find treatment programs. His testimony cited the following results:

“Educational programs on drug and alcohol abuse and treatment such as the Science of Addiction were standing room only for many of the sessions for nurses and medical doctors,” said Kami Anderson, director of the tri-county coalition. “The ARMOT members were given offices in the hospital, participated in the hospital’s orientation programs, and were given hospital identification badges, and were treated similarly to their employees. Stigma towards our patients started to subside. At the end of Year 2, the ARMOT team had 427 referrals. Of those 427 referrals, 207 agreed to participate in a level of care assessment. Of the 207 patients assessed, 143 were admitted to drug and alcohol treatment, a 69% success rate if the patient agreed to the level of care assessment. Our overall access rate to treatment is 33.25%, compared to 11% nationally.”

Mr. Quinones applauded federal legislation—the Combating Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), and the 21st Century Cures Act—but urged lawmakers to recognize that the epidemic has been entrenched over many decades and will take time and sustained investments to address.

Questions pertaining to federal policy may be directed to Laura Stevens Kent, HAP’s vice president, federal legislative advocacy. 

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