Q13 FOX Season of Giving

Congress takes multifaceted approach to try to fight the opioid epidemic

SEATTLE -- A new battle in the war on opioids is brewing from Washington state to Washington D.C.

Congress recently passed the Opioid Crisis Response Act, a bill aimed at punishing some drug companies and helping both addicts and law enforcement with tools and money. But some people with chronic pain feel like they're caught in the crossfire.

"It's a horrendous life. There's no joy left in it," says Maria Higgenbotham.

The Gig Harbor woman's pain medications have been scaled back 40 percent because of the ongoing war on the opioid health crisis in the country. Higgenbotham has been living in chronic pain for 14 years due to a degenerative hereditary disease that is crumbling the bones in her spine.

"I used to be able to spend time with family and friends," she says. "I can't do any of that, I can't hold my grandson. It's not a life."

But Wednesday in Seattle, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., was touting legislation passed this week that will further fight the epidemic. Cantwell says her bill won't hurt chronic pain sufferers like those who gathered Tuesday at "Don't Punish Pain" rallies in Seattle and across the country.

"What we want to make sure is that [those chronically in pain] are getting the help they need," says the junior senator from Washington. "But we want to have tools in the community to not have the illicit distribution of or over-prescribing of these drugs."

Cantwell says the new legislation will hold drug manufacturers accountable for tracking and flagging large suspicious shipments. The current fines for failing to follow the federal law were only $10,000 per violation. But under the new law, that penalty would really go at the bottom line of those drug manufacturers and distributors as it would jump to $100,000 per violation.

The new package of laws would prevent fatal overdoses and protect the first responders who would have to administer life-saving medicine. The bill would also expand treatment coverage and fund 'drug courts' to give offenders a path to rehabilitation that doesn't have to involve time behind bars.

"These are people's sons and daughters, they're husbands, aunts and uncles, they're even grandparents," says Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary. "And we need to talk about their lives. The idea that their deaths solves the problem is ridiculous. This notion that we’re going to arrest our way out of this problem -- that a pair of handcuffs and a trip to jail will somehow solve this epidemic is nonsense."

The package of about 70 proposals bundled into the Opioid Crisis Response Act will cost almost $8 billion -- with roughly $1.2 million coming directly to local communities in Washington state.

"This the way government is supposed to work," says Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor. "Federal, local governments working together to solve problems. The problem [here] is large, the problem is difficult."

And the opioid epidemic impacts the economy in the billions, but there's also an immeasurable human toll in lives lost and the grieving families and friends they leave behind.

"It's costing us," says Cantwell.

For chronic pain sufferers like Maria, who's been told her medication will be reduced even more, she'd like an exemption for people in pain like her.

"The scaling back," she says, "I used to be able to get up 20-30 percent of the day. Now it's about 5 percent of the day."

Cantwell's staff says if the U.S. House and Senate can reconcile their two bills, the Opioid Crisis Response Act could be on the president's desk by the beginning of October and hopefully get some desperately needed resources to local communities by the end of the year.