Paul Ryan, Mass. lawmakers focus on opioids in shadow of Trump

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House Speaker Paul Ryan.
House Speaker Paul Ryan.NYT

WASHINGTON — While the attention on Capitol Hill this week has focused on Donald Trump's visit, a quieter — and potentially more substantive — conversation is underway in Congress to address the opioid addiction crisis sweeping the country.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, after a morning meeting with Trump, is planning Thursday to continue pushing for passage of 18 initiatives to help stem the epidemic.

The legislation has been in the works for months, with the Massachusetts delegation at the forefront of shaping the national agenda for an issue that's particularly potent in New England.

It's one that Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker brought up on his first visit to the White House, and one that found its way into the presidential campaign during frequent candidate stops in New Hampshire.


"What today marks is the beginning of a very divided Congress coming together to tackle an issue that is a national epidemic and crisis," said Representative Bill Keating, a Bourne Democrat who represents counties in southeastern Massachusetts and the Cape that have the highest per capita death rates from opioid overdoses in the state.

"Seeing Congress come together on this issue is a more important statement to make than watching them tomorrow being divided on the political campaign," said Keating, referring to Trump's first visit with Republican congressional leaders as a "political reality show." "The real reality people are dealing with is the life and death nature of this epidemic."

Ryan, at a press conference Wednesday highlighting congressional efforts to combat opioid abuse, acknowledged that the Trump show has overshadowed substantive policy matters of late.

"I know some of you are here about a meeting that's happening tomorrow. I'd like to talk to you about a meeting that I had yesterday," Ryan said before telling a story about a Marine corporal from Wisconsin who died from an opiate overdose while being treated for anxiety in a VA hospital.


The House on Tuesday evening had passed a bill that would reform the way VA hospitals monitor opiate prescriptions. The passage of a slew of opiate-related bipartisan legislation picked up Wednesday and is expected to continue Thursday — from protecting infants and stopping drug kingpins to closer monitoring of prescription data.

The Senate has already passed its own opioid legislation; both sides of Congress still must reconcile any differences in a final package before President Obama can sign it into law.

Ryan vowed to "take all of these ideas, pass them through the House" and work with the Senate to "put a bill on the president's desk fast."

"That is what this week is about," the speaker said.

The reporters before him did not get the message, peppering him with questions only about Trump. (Ryan said he doesn't really know Trump, having met him only once — in 2012. "We had a very good conversation in March, on the phone," he added.)

Among the series of opioid-related bills and amendments being considered this week are several sponsored by members of the all-Democratic Massachusetts delegation, including representatives Keating, Katherine Clark of Melrose, and Joe Kennedy III of Brookline.

Kennedy's bill updates federal guidelines for pain management and the prescription of painkillers. Keating's amendment to that bill urges doctors to consider prescribing the overdose reversal drug naloxone along with painkillers.

Keating, a former district attorney who investigated his share of drug overdose deaths, also has sponsored legislation to expand federal grants to help communities collect leftover painkillers so they don't end up in the wrong hands.


Clark's bills would increase the availability of naloxone and ensure that infants born with opiate withdrawal get the help they need.

Her legislation would also reduce the number of unused painkillers by allowing pharmacists to partly fill prescriptions for opioid medications at the request of patients or doctors — something Baker had signed into law earlier this year, making Massachusetts the first state to allow the practice.

Clark said she hopes the flurry of opioid legislation this week will serve as a reminder to Trump about the focus of public service.

"This is why people run for office. This is the type of work we need to get back to," Clark said. "We are not just speaking on the campaign trail about this but we're actually providing families some solutions and hope for the future. That's where our focus is in the House and I certainly hope that will be Donald Trump's focus as he proceeds in this campaign."

Trump himself talked a lot about addiction while campaigning in New Hampshire, where he addressed the state's "tremendous problem with heroin and drugs."

"You see this place and you say it's so beautiful. You have a tremendous problem," Trump said.

His solution? Build a wall.

"I'm going to create borders. No drugs are coming in," he said in a video he posted on Facebook in February. "Believe me, I will solve the problem. They will stop coming to New Hampshire. They will stop coming to our country."


Tracy Jan can be reached at tracy.jan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @TracyJan.