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Price Clashes With Senators Over Path to Combat Opioid Crisis

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price says combating the opioid crisis is one of his top priorities, a goal that has bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.

But at a Thursday hearing before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee focused on HHS, Price faced pushback from members of both parties who represent states that have been struck hardest by opioid addiction, who said the proposed HHS budget wouldn’t provide sufficient funding to fight the crisis. His argument that programs meant to address the issue aren’t working sufficiently because the number of deaths related to the opioid crisis continues to rise didn’t seem to resonate either.

“The programs that are out there, by and large, are not working. We are losing more Americans today than we did last year to opioid addiction and overdose deaths,” Price told the panel. “Clearly, we are moving in the wrong direction.”

His comments echoed what he told the Senate Finance Committee last week. Price has said he envisions a system that gives states flexibility to deal with the crisis and that would isolate patients receiving treatment for addiction from the current system, whether it is financed through Medicaid or another way.

Price has argued, on this issue and others, that spending money on a program doesn’t translate to its success. Various agencies within HHS will be putting “significantly greater” focus on the issue, he told the panel, adding that working together would “bring greater resources than have been put in in the past.”

He said that future grants distributed to states for additional resources to fight addiction would be calculated differently than they have been so far this year, since HHS was previously tied to how the previous administration calculated the grants. The department is also seeking best practices advice from state officials, he said.

But senators found fault with his argument. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) credited the state’s Medicaid expansion and new funding for opioid addiction that Congress approved as part of the 21st Century Cures Act last year for providing resources to patients, but said the effects are only just becoming evident.

“The resources are just getting to communities. In New Hampshire, we’re just beginning to see the benefits of having the expansion of Medicaid to provide treatment for people who have substance use disorders,” she said. “We’re just beginning to see a pipeline that’s developed because there’s some certainty around payments.”

Similarly, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said the issue had drawn more public awareness in the last five or six years and officials have learned more about it as more data has become available. She told Price it was challenging to reconcile his goal of combating opioid abuse with “dramatic cuts” to the budgets of agencies working on the issue, particularly when the budget baselines had been low to start with.

“Increasing resources in that area was absolutely critical, I think, to get to where we are now, and we’re still in a crisis,” Capito said.