By Elijah Cummings

On July 27, Senator Elizabeth Warren and I held a congressional Roundtable in Baltimore with Maryland Senator Ben Cardin and Congressman John Sarbanes, Baltimore officials, health professionals, and community representatives.  We did so to learn more from those on the front lines of our national opioid epidemic about the challenges they face and the urgent need for new resources to expand treatment.

I am hopeful that our colleagues in Washington, along with the American people, will be galvanized into more effective action by the compelling lessons that we learned from Baltimore’s front lines.

Americans are facing an urgent public health crisis.

Nationally, drug overdoses are killing 175 people every single day, and the death toll from this epidemic is accelerating.

Elijah Cummings (Courtesy Photo/Facebook)

Tragically, Maryland is at the epicenter of this rapidly expanding tragedy.

Several weeks ago, the Maryland Health Department confirmed that the number of drug and alcohol-related deaths in Maryland reached a deadly record (2,282) during 2017 – and 761 of those deaths occurred in Baltimore City.

Confronted with this urgent threat to our health and safety, we all should be listening carefully to the advice of Baltimore City’s Health Commissioner, Dr. Leana Wen.

“These numbers are both terrifying and frustrating,” Dr. Wen acknowledged recently.  “They are terrifying because they keep increasing, and we don’t know whether this is the peak of the epidemic. They are frustrating because those of us on the front lines know what works to stop this epidemic.”

In the face of a danger confronting every family, we can take some comfort in the knowledge that public health experts like Dr. Wen do know how our society can more effectively combat this public health emergency.

The first step is for each of us – both citizens and policy makers alike – to acknowledge that addiction is a chronic disease, not a moral failing to be punished.

All too often, loved ones and neighbors who have become dependent (too often through legally prescribed medications) have been stigmatized – and that prejudice has only accentuated the dangers that we now are confronting.

The second reality that offers a basis for optimism is that our health professionals have developed highly effective, medically-assisted treatment regimens that offer pathways away from opioid dependency and back to health.  Tragically, however, only 10 percent of those who need treatment are now receiving this lifeline.

Third, although we now have the medical and societal knowledge that can provide effective treatment for the disease of addiction, the public health infrastructure that would enable our nation’s medical professionals to successfully overcome this epidemic does not exist yet.

“More than anything else,” Dr. Wen advises us, “what is required … is a sustained investment of resources.”

I agree with Dr. Wen’s analysis.  That is why Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and I engaged her experience and knowledge in helping us to create legislation that, if adopted, would enable us to change how the United States fights this health emergency.

Our proposed Comprehensive Addiction Resources Emergency (CARE) Act (H.R. 5545 / S. 2700) would: (1) provide $100 billion to combat the disease of addiction over the next ten years; (2) target resources to communities, like Baltimore, with the greatest need; and (3) help ensure that first responders and public health departments have the naloxone supplies they need to save lives.

Under the bill, the State of Maryland could receive approximately $48 million annually from federal formula grants, while the hardest-hit communities in Maryland—including Baltimore City and 16 counties—would share an estimated $50.4 million in funding directed to the local jurisdictions on the front line of the crisis.  In addition, both the State of Maryland and all local jurisdictions could apply for competitive grants to obtain additional resources to fight the drug crisis.

Convincing the Congress

Eighty Members of the House of Representatives have now joined the CARE Act as cosponsors, including the entire House Democratic leadership and 13 House Committee Ranking Members. Although our Republican colleagues have not yet offered their support, I believe that one day, they will.  Here is why.

The CARE Act has been endorsed by more than 30 groups representing health care professionals, local governments, and public health advocacy organizations.

And the President’s own Council of Economic Advisers has estimated that the harms caused by the opioid epidemic cost the nation more than $500 billion in just one year.  The costs of inaction will only continue to grow.

America’s opioid epidemic is devastating communities in red states, blue states, and purple states, terrorizing families that are wealthy, poor and everywhere in between.  When the voters in Republican congressional districts realize that we can end the carnage that is devastating their communities if we just have the political will to do so, their outcry for congressional action will be overwhelming.

The American people will demand that we, in the Congress, demonstrate by our actions that we “CARE” about their lives.

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

Congressman Elijah Cummings

Special to the AFRO