More than 50,000 people in the U.S. died because of an opioid overdose last year, which is an all-time high.
The opioid epidemic was the subject of Congress’s Joint Economic Committee hearing last week. New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich, a Democrat, is the ranking member of that committee. He spoke with KUNM about the hearing and the prospects for behavioral health in the Republican health care replacement bill.
KUNM: Senator Heinrich thank you for joining us. We’re talking just a few hours after the shooting that happened during the congressional baseball practice in Virginia. How are things in the capital right now?
HEINRICH: A little tense. When you watch some of your friends and colleagues be subjected to something like this, I think it’s shaken people up here quite a bit.
KUNM: Our thoughts go out to everyone affected there. In your opening statement to the Joint Economic Committee’s hearing on the opioid epidemic, you said that here in New Mexico, Medicaid accounts for about 30 percent of medication-assisted treatment programs for opioid and heroin addictions.
The Republican health care bill—at least the House version—would mean cuts to Medicaid. Now the state Human Services Department is drafting potential changes to the Medicaid program here like charging premiums. Where do you see all of this ending up?
HEINRICH: Well, I hope we can hold the line. Medicaid is foundational to being able to treat opioid addiction, and in a state like New Mexico that has unfortunately had a long history of heroin and opioid addiction, it is absolutely a critical tool. You wouldn’t treat cancer with a grant. We shouldn’t be treating addiction with grants. We need to have that Medicaid foundation there.
I think it’s absolutely critical for people to understand that if you take $800 billion out of Medicaid, as the Republican health care plan would do, then you take another $600 billion out through the budget process, which is what the president’s budget would do, you would have no hope of getting ahead of this horrible scourge.
KUNM: But this is a problem in red states and blue states. Wouldn’t it be fair to assume that the Republican health care bill coming up for a vote in the Senate could offer some help and attention to the opioid epidemic?
HEINRICH: I certainly hope so, but the problem that I see right now is that the Senate bill is being drafted behind closed doors with no bipartisan input. So I can only hope that senators from states like Ohio and West Virginia that have also struggled with this issue are standing up in those meetings and saying, We can’t do this to Medicaid.
KUNM: This has been a crisis in New Mexico for decades. There has been some progress, but it’s still a huge issue. In your view, what is the biggest challenge in overcoming this problem?
HEINRICH: It’s resources, pure and simple. We know how to treat this. It’s not rocket science, it’s treatment. That’s what works, and we need to be the kind of state where somebody who wants to better themselves can get that treatment.
KUNM: On another note, earlier this week you accused Attorney General Jeff Sessions of obstructing the Senate’s investigation into Russia and the election because he wouldn’t answer certain questions.
I think a lot of people are asking, if that’s true, now what? What does this mean for the progress of the Senate investigation? Can it even get any answers?
HEINRICH: The administration doesn’t want to answer those questions, but we’re going to keep asking those questions and we’re going to seek additional tools to be able to get at those answers one way or another.
KUNM: But what kind of tools do really have?
HEINRICH: One tool that is always in the toolbox, and would require some of my colleagues to cross over and not vote with their party on this one, is through contempt of Congress to compel testimony on some of those matters.
KUNM's Public Health New Mexico Project is funded by the WK Kellogg Foundation and the McCune Charitable foundation. Find more at www.publichealthnm.org.