Senators Introduce Legislation to Boost SUD Funding, Make Telehealth Flexibilities Permanent

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has introduced legislation to increase the amount of federal funding aimed at combating the nation’s opioid epidemic, which has worsened since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. On top of that, the new bill aims to make some COVID-19-era telehealth flexibilities permanent, among other changes.

The legislation — the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) 3.0 — is sponsored by Senators Rob Portman (R-OH), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH).

CARA 3.0 calls for $785 million to be put toward assistance and resources for individuals struggling with opioid use disorder (OUD). Some examples include evidence-based prevention, enforcement, treatment, criminal justice and recovery programs.

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If approved, CARA 3.0 would be the latest funding iteration of the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which was passed by Congress and signed into law by then-President Obama in 2016.

The original version of CARA authorized $181 million annually in funding for anti-addiction assistance and resources. New provisions were added to CARA in 2018 as part of the SUPPORT Act, which was passed by Congress and signed into law by then-President Trump to provide further assistance toward combating the OUD crisis.

Some of the CARA 3.0 funding proposals include putting $300 million toward the expansion of evidence-based medication-assisted treatment (MAT), $200 million toward transitional resources for individuals moving from treatment to long-term recovery for substance use disorder (SUD) and $55 million toward training and hiring SUD professionals.

CARA 3.0 also contains a number of policy change proposals, such as removing limits on the amount of patients a physician can treat using MAT drugs like buprenorphine and methadone, as well as permanently allowing providers to prescribe MAT and other necessary drugs by telehealth without requiring an initial in-person visit by a patient. Some restrictions on the telemedical prescription of MAT drugs are currently being waived due to the pandemic.

“In recent years we have made real progress in fighting the scourge of addiction thanks to resources from the bipartisan CARA law, in addition to other bipartisan efforts in Congress,” Portman said in a press release announcing the legislation. “However, the COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented challenges and we are now seeing a heartbreaking surge in overdose deaths. That is why we must redouble our efforts to combat addiction and help those who are suffering during this crisis.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 81,230 drug overdose deaths in a 12-month period ending in May 2020. The figure represents an approximate 18% rise from the 12-month period ending in June 2019 and marks the largest number of deaths ever recorded for SUD during a one-year span. 

“Senator Portman’s and my CARA bill was the most wide-ranging federal addiction legislation ever passed,” Whitehouse said in the press release. “Now, it’s time to deepen CARA’s reach into communities where the opioid crisis rages, and add important new reforms like expanding treatment options for new mothers and building our recovery workforce. I’m pleased to join Senator Portman and a bipartisan group of cosponsors to expand on the progress we’ve made in the fight against the opioid crisis.”