By Elijah Cummings and Elizabeth Warren, Special to the AFRO

Our nation’s substance use crisis—which has as its epicenter the opioid epidemic—must compel our government to act.

Like the plagues of old, the growing national toll in lives lost and families destroyed is daunting.

Nearly 64,000 Americans perished from drug overdoses in 2016.  Approximately 2,100 of those untimely and unnecessary deaths occurred here in Maryland.

Equally alarming, the carnage appears to be worsening.

Last year, the Centers for Disease Control warned that life expectancy in the United States has dropped for the second year in a row—and drug overdoses are the single biggest reason why.  Emergency room visits for opioid overdoses skyrocketed in all parts of the United States by 30% between July 2016 and September 2017.

Congressman Elijah Cummings and Senator Elizabeth Warren (Twitter Photos)

Experts advise us that our nation has the scientific capability to better protect us from this plague, if only our political system can muster the courage and the will.

Nationally, a presidential commission has issued its recommendations, many of them positive and scientifically based; and the Congress has appropriated $6 billion in additional funding over the next two years.

However, as Maryland Governor Larry Hogan testified before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee last month, the federal response must be more urgent, more comprehensive and more effective.

“In spite of all of our efforts,” he declared, “in spite of us fighting with every tool we have at our disposal, this crisis continues to evolve, particularly with the threat of fentanyl and other synthetic additives, which can be 50 times to 100 times stronger than heroin.  Combatting a crisis of this scale requires all levels of government working together. No state or community can go it alone.”

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and I agree.  That is why we are developing a comprehensive and hopefully bipartisan strategy to better protect our nation against this epidemic.

State and local public health officials need more federal resources – and these additional resources must be applied in a comprehensive national plan modeled on measures that have worked in the past.

Three decades ago, America confronted another epidemic, HIV/AIDS, that was highly stigmatized, greatly misunderstood and severely underestimated, an epidemic that was spreading through our country and killing tens of thousands of otherwise healthy people each year.

The federal government alone possessed the resources capable of addressing that epidemic, but for years Washington refused to devote meaningful resources to combating HIV/AIDS, even as it continued to kill more Americans every day.

Then, in 1990, Rep. Henry Waxman, Sen. Ted Kennedy, and Sen. Orrin Hatch worked together to pass the bipartisan Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act that recognized the gravity — and the urgency — of the HIV/AIDS crisis by setting forth a comprehensive approach to treatment and providing significant new funding for individualized support services.

It recognized that the epidemic looked different in different parts of the country, so it sent funding directly to the areas of the country that needed help the most and gave states and affected communities the ability to identify their most urgent needs and decide how dollars should be spent to address those needs.

Our colleagues’ work required substantial political courage, just as working on a bipartisan basis to better protect our nation against the opioid epidemic we now face will require bipartisan political will.

Senator Warren and I are convinced that the results that have been achieved through the Ryan White program are worth the effort:  vital services are being provided to more than half a million people every year, life-saving medications are available, new infections have plummeted and science — rather than stigma — guides medical care.

It is time for Congress to show the same political courage that our colleagues showed nearly 30 years ago.

This is why we intend to introduce legislation to establish a comprehensive system for funding and local decision-making to address opioid addiction and substance use that is modeled directly on the highly successful Ryan White CARE Act.

Our legislation will acknowledge that the epidemic we are confronting is a disease, which must be addressed by providing treatment to those who need it and investing in the science that will help us make progress in fighting back.  It will also make it easier to hold those who are fueling the epidemic more accountable for their actions.

The Ryan White CARE Act is an enduring example of what Congress can achieve when it works to help states and communities address a national public health crisis by providing federal support.

We are urging our colleagues, Democratic and Republican alike, to join us in this effort, to show courage, to combat ignorance and ill-informed stigmas, and to step up with significant new resources.

Protecting our nation and her people cannot be about politics. It must be about saving lives.

Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives. 

Senator Elizabeth Warren represents the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  A version of this op-ed appeared in the March 29 edition of USA Today.