The U.S. Senate is working on crafting a comprehensive package to combat the nation's opioid addiction problems and ease the transition from treatment to the workforce, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Monday.
The Kentucky Republican attended discussions that included business representatives and executives on the front lines of treating people battling drug addiction.
McConnell emerged to promote his recently introduced measure aimed at helping people make the successful journey from treatment to the workplace.
"We're likely to put together an opioid package in the Senate," he told reporters. "This bill will be a part of it. There are other aspects that others are taking the lead on."
McConnell noted that as majority leader, he sets the Senate's schedule.
"And I think it's safe to say I wouldn't be here today if this wasn't a high priority," he said.
McConnell's bill — known as the CAREER Act — aims to expand transitional housing options for recovering addicts until they find permanent arrangements. It also would give states more flexibility to spend federal career services and training funds to help them find jobs. The state-based pilot program established under the measure would encourage businesses and treatment groups to work together to help people in recovery find work.
Scott Hesseltine, an addiction services executive, said the measure would help answer a crucial question in drug treatment circles: What happens after treatment?
"This is the what-next piece, the ability to help individuals, families and communities transform from this tragic epidemic," said Hesseltine, an executive at Centerstone, which offers substance abuse treatment among its many services.
Access to living-wage jobs and affordable housing are key factors in the recovery from addiction, said Jennifer Hancock, president and CEO of the group Volunteers of America Mid-States, which also offers addiction recovery services.
The measure would authorize more than $1 billion to assist with the transition from treatment to the workplace, McConnell's office said Monday. It includes a provision that would authorize $25 million to provide for transitional housing services.
From the vantage of Kentucky's business community, opioid addictions caused a workforce crisis as well as a health crisis, said Kentucky Chamber of Commerce executive Ashli Watts.
"Here in Kentucky we often say we have too many jobs without people, and too many people without jobs," she said. "Employers are struggling to find and retain workers, and one of the main reasons for this is our opioid crisis."
McConnell said law enforcement has a role in combating opioid addiction, but said police should target dealers — "people who are engaged in trying to profit off this crisis."
"But the most important thing is trying to get people who are addicted the opportunity to get back to work, and I think the CAREER Act focuses on that transition from recovery back to the workforce," the senator said.
McConnell also recently introduced a bill aimed at another byproduct of the opioid crisis — addicted mothers and their babies. The measure calls for educational materials on pain management for doctors and expectant mothers. It also seeks to boost funding for federal grants awarded to organizations assisting addicted mothers.