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CARA one step closer to president's desk

March 1, 2016
by Julie Miller, Editor in Chief
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On February 29—Leap Day—a key piece of addiction-related legislation took a big leap forward. According to industry observers, however, lawmakers might still have a few hurdles to jump as amendments to the bill are considered.

By a unanimous vote of 89-0, the Senate moved forward on the Comprehensive Addiction & Recovery Act (CARA) (S. 524) to bring the bill to the floor. Some industry watchers believe CARA will see a final vote in the chamber this week.

“The National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers appreciates the procedural step taken by the U.S. Senate to assure a vote will occur on CARA,” Mark Dunn, policy representative of the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP), tells Behavioral Healthcare. “While this is not a magic bullet, it does provide significant treatment assistance for high risk populations. There is no doubt that lives will be saved if Congress passes CARA.”

The bipartisan legislation authorizes resources for treatment and recovery programs, including greater use of naloxone, but it does not actually appropriate federal funding. According to Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who co-authored CARA with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Congress passed a spending bill in December 2015 that already made millions of dollars available that could be directed to CARA implementation.

“I am really pleased that the Senate voted tonight to proceed to this legislation called CARA, the Comprehensive Addiction & Recovery Act” said Portman on the Senate floor last night. “CARA is a federal response to this issue. It is attempting to make the federal government a better partner with state and local government and nonprofits to be able to help to reverse this tide, to deal with this urgent problem.”

CARA authorizes the Attorney General to award grants to develop or expand treatment alternatives to incarceration. It aims to improve prescription drug monitoring programs and also calls for expanded disposal sites for unwanted prescription medications. There are also provisions for greater use of naloxone.

“The idea is to get this bill passed, get it through the House, and have it be signed into law by the president of the United States,” Portman said. “It’s urgent that we do it.”

Amendments to CARA

A number of amendments will be offered during the final debate, but it’s important to note that no one can filibuster CARA in the Senate at this point.  

For one, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) has proposed an amendment that would provide $600 million in emergency spending in light of the growing heroin and opioid crisis in many states, including her own. Some question whether Democrats would pass CARA without the Shaheen amendment, which they are staunchly fighting for.

After CARA moves through the Senate, the House, which is somewhat more fiscally conservative, will then need to pass the companion bill before CARA goes to the president. There are 34 bipartisan co-sponsors of CARA in the Senate, according to Portman, and the companion House bill has 88 co-sponsors.

“We are hopeful that given the bipartisan support and overwhelming vote to prevent a filibuster, the Senate and U.S. House of Representatives will pass CARA and send it to the president,” Dunn says.

More than 130 national groups support the bill, including NAATP, Faces and Voices of Recovery, and The National Association of County Behavioral Health and Developmental Disability Directors.