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Oregon lawmaker topics: GMOs, drugs, mental health


Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said Wednesday he was disappointed the Senate voted to close debate on legislation that would prohibit states from requiring GMO labeling.

Instead, he said, it would institute weak federal requirements that would make it virtually impossible for ordinary consumers to access information about genetically modified ingredients in their food:

“How can you have a so-called ‘mandatory GMO labeling bill’ that doesn’t require on-package labels, doesn’t cover the most common GMO products, and doesn’t mandate a single consequence for companies that don’t comply?

“The answer is you can’t.

“This bill—the Monsanto DARK Act 2.0—contains the same basic flaws of the original Denying Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act that the Senate rejected in March. It is a special-interest assault that takes away consumers’ right to know about GMO ingredients in their food.

“Any senator who is serious about protecting consumers’ right to know what is in their food should be eager to amend this bill to fix these gaping loopholes. Nine in ten Americans, including Democrats, Republicans and independents, want clear labels on GMO ingredients in their food. Congress should defeat this bill and instead provide a clear national standard that gives consumers the easy-to-use label they want.”

Meanwhile, Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Ron Wyden, D-Ore., expressed disappointment in the results of the bicameral conference meeting on legislation to address the national opioid epidemic.

In addition to a lack of funding in the bill, the conference voted down two amendments offered by Wyden, including one that will provide $75 million to opioid manufacturers for their so-called abuse-deterrent formulation opioid products.

“Today, Congress had the opportunity to take common sense steps that would have a real impact on the opioid epidemic,” Wyden said. “I’m disappointed that many of my colleagues chose to give drug makers millions of dollars in kickbacks rather than helping pregnant women struggling with addiction. And when it came to increasing transparency on federal panels that advise on prescription opioid practices, Congress decided once again to let the fox guard the henhouse.”

As it stands, a provision in the conference report provides a special exception to the Medicaid drug rebate for certain opioids known as “abuse-deterrent formulations,” which are more difficult to crush up and snort than other opioids. There is little evidence that these drugs have a measurable impact on addiction deterrence and overdose rates.

Additionally, opioid manufacturers are already making abuse-deterrent formulations, and have been for some time without any direct financial incentive from the federal government. The policy, known as the Medicaid in-line extension, would result in $75 million dollars flowing to drug makers, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Wyden offered an amendment that he said would strike this giveaway to drug makers, and instead use the funds to remove a barrier low-income, pregnant women in Medicaid seeking addiction treatment. Currently, they have to forfeit their critical primary care and pre-natal coverage in order to seek treatment for substance abuse.

Wyden also offered an amendment that would require the Secretary of Health and Human Services to develop guidelines and procedures to ensure greater transparency among non-federal members of an interagency pain management task force that is to be created as a part of the opioid bill. The amendment comes as Wyden continues working to ensure members of federal panels, particularly those advising government agencies on opioids, are properly and publicly disclosing potential conflicts of interest.

Meanwhile, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Hood River) announced Wednesday that the House has overwhelmingly approved bipartisan reforms of the country’s mental health care system.

The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act (H.R. 2646) will help deliver better, more timely care to mentally ill patients and their families. Walden spoke in support of this legislation on the House floor. See remarks below:

“Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Today I rise in support of the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act.

“Ten million Americans suffer from serious mental illness. If they get care, they’re 16 times less likely to harm themselves or others. But, right now, too many patients fall through the cracks.

“At a recent roundtable in Medford, Oregon, I heard from parents about their children who experienced homelessness and violence due to their illness, from caregivers about the difficulty getting patients timely care, and from law enforcement about how the default place for the mentally ill is often the local jail. The consensus among all of them was that the health care system, the government, and society are failing those who need help the most.

“It’s clear we must do more to improve treatment, boost resources, and simplify the bureaucracy surrounding the mental health system in America. We can do better, and we will with this bill.”

The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act reforms the federal government’s mental health bureaucracy to break down barriers to care. It allows families to better work with health care professionals to care for loved ones, and helps fix the shortage of psychiatric hospital beds in this country. The bill also advances tele-psychiatry to help mentally ill patients in rural areas.

In November, Walden held a roundtable meeting in Medford with mental health advocates, psychologists, physicians, and members of the law enforcement community to get their input on mental health legislation.

Local health providers praised the bill.

“Providence St. Joseph Health commends Congressman Walden for his leadership in sponsoring the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act. It takes an important step forward in fixing the fragmented nature of behavioral health care. Mental health and wellness remains a major priority for our health system – our caregivers see the need every day in the many communities we serve across the western U.S. Providence St. Joseph Health is deeply grateful to Rep. Walden and every House member who supports this bill – together, we can make a real difference for some of the most vulnerable people in society,” said Rod Hochman, M.D., CEO, Providence St. Joseph Health.

“As a Family Nurse Practitioner working in Emergency Services, I’ve seen firsthand how the lack of coordinated mental health care can have a negative effect in our communities,” said Dr. Cindi Warburton, Family Nurse Practitioner, Bend Memorial Clinic. “I know we can do a better job of providing crisis intervention and treatment programs and the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act will propel these efforts forward. Improving the health of our Nation begins with supporting our communities in providing access to physical and mental health services.”

“In our little county of 7,000 people, as everywhere in America, people struggle with significant mental health issues. Anxiety, depression, and various forms of psychosis rob them of the ability to work and have healthy relationships. Their mental health issues rob them of life. There is so much that needs to be done to help these people find healing, and a new capacity to participate the communities that love them. The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act is an important beginning. Its emphasis on integration and parity are critical if America is to move forward and address the issue of mental illness,” said Dr. Stephen Kliewer, Licensed Professional Counselor and Director Emeritus, Wallowa Valley Center for Wellness.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, patients with serious mental illness receiving treatment are 16 times less likely to commit violent acts than those who go untreated. These individuals are also 11 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population.The federal government spends $130 billion per year on mental health, yet the rates of violence, suicide, homelessness, and incarceration among the mentally ill have increased over the past two decades.

This legislation will now go to the U.S. Senate, where a similar bill has already been introduced. If passed by the Senate, members from both chambers will work out any differences between the two versions of the bill before it is signed into law.

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