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Senate Leaves for Recess Without Acting on Family First Act

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon

WASHINGTON — Federal legislation that aims to address the nation’s opioid crisis cleared its last major hurdle this week, while another bill that also includes provisions to address substance abuse floundered.

Before leaving for a lengthy summer recess, the Senate sent to the president’s desk the sweeping Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (S 524), which includes some programs focused on the needs of children and families.

But the Senate did not take up the Family First Prevention Services Act (HR 5456, S 3065), a bill that would give states more flexibility to use foster care funding to keep families together, including by paying for substance use treatment for parents.

The Family First Act moved swiftly through the House after its introduction in June but slowed as it moved toward the Senate floor. Officials in several states, including California and New York, have objected to the bill, particularly restrictions it would place on the use of group homes. The bill has wide support though, from more than 130 child advocacy groups.

When Congress returns to Washington in September, lawmakers will have limited days to work on legislation before adjourning again in the leadup to the elections, leaving the bill’s fate unknown.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee and a lead sponsor of the Family First Act, urged support for passage of the bill in the fall, saying it allows sufficient flexibility to address states’ concerns.

“If this bill were to come before the Senate in an up-or-down vote, I believe it would sail through on a bipartisan basis. It’s the right policy for kids, and it’s the right policy for taxpayers, whose investments in foster care today aren’t helping children and families the way they should,” he said in a floor statement.

CARA provisions

The Senate passed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) conference report, a compromise reached by House and Senate lawmakers by a vote of 92-2, despite some Democrats’ concerns that the bill authorizes new programs but does not include enough funding to make good on the bill’s potential.

Republican lawmakers have said Congress can appropriate money for prevention and treatment later this year.

The bill includes provisions that would expand community grant programs to address local drug crises, expand grants for state addiction treatment services and improve access to overdose reversal medications, according to a summary.

It also would reauthorize a grant program for residential treatment for pregnant and postpartum women and their children, and create a pilot program to allow states to support family-based services for the same population.

In addition, the bill would require states to have stricter plans for the safe care of infants affected by substance abuse or withdrawal symptoms at birth.

“This legislation sees addiction for what it is — a disease in need of treatment. It will help first responders, health care providers, family members, law enforcement and everyone on the front lines of this crisis to care for those afflicted. And it will support Americans walking the long but noble path of recovery,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, another lead sponsor of the original bill, in a release.

Rricha Mathur, senior policy advisor on child welfare and child rights for First Focus, said she is encouraged to see lawmakers recognize that substance abuse affects whole families, including children. What’s critical now is whether lawmakers come though with new spending.

“I’m not sure that without funding it’s going to improve the status quo,” Mathur said.

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