Activists went all out to save Obamacare. Now they’re fighting for opioid recovery funds.

Can the resistance get Congress to commit?

(CREDIT: Amanda Gomez)
(CREDIT: Amanda Gomez)

It’s Phil Krauss’ first time protesting on Capitol Hill. He’s an advocate who kicked heroin three years ago when he was 32 years old. He’s new to organizing but he’s surrounded by veterans, many who were just at the Russell Senate Office Building two months ago trying to save the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

About 50 activists — affiliated with a host of grassroots organizations — met for the first time Monday in Washington, D.C. to demand that Congress appropriately fund solutions for opioid users. Last month, President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency, opening up a limited pot of money: $57,000, or just two cents for each person struggling with addiction. Activists on the Hill on Monday asked Congress to invest $45 billion in treatment and overdose prevention efforts — a tall order for a fiscally conservative Congress.

Brian from Indiana's Hoosier Action organization spoke in his senators' offices Monday to talk about his struggle with addiction, Monday, November 13, 2017.  (CREDIT: AMANDA GOMEZ)
Brian from Indiana's Hoosier Action organization spoke in his senators' offices Monday to talk about his struggle with addiction, Monday, November 13, 2017. (CREDIT: AMANDA GOMEZ)

Krauss, who came from Youngstown, Ohio was hoping to meet with his Senators Rob Portman (R) and Sherrod Brown (D) to put a face to the epidemic. He’s hoping to get members of Congress to commit to new funds for treatment, while not undermining an existing funding source: Medicaid. Medicaid helped finance his suboxone prescription, medication for opioid-use disorder. He’s no longer on medication-assisted treatment (MAT), but recognizes the importance of subsidized maintenance, shorthand for treatment.

Krauss joined others from the so-called Opioid Network — largely organized by the Center for Popular Democracy; the group includes members affiliated with longtime grassroots organizations like the disability rights group ADAPT and VOCAL-NY,  formerly called New York City AIDS Housing Network, to new progressive groups like Indiana’s Hoosier Action. They met with some Senate staffers Monday to talk about addiction relief funds and — similar to past practices — staging sit-ins where they didn’t get an appointment on the books.

Monday’s staged action came on on the heels of major progressive victories in health care. Maine became the first state to expand Medicaid eligibility by ballot initiative Tuesday, and the Trump administration released numbers Thursday that showed ACA enrollment is off to a strong start despite major setbacks. Additionally, activists saw firsthand how mobilization can help kill bills that undermine current health law.

Unlike the most recent ACA protests, activists are asking Congress to commit to funds. Although the opioid epidemic looks to unite politicians from both parities, passing a bipartisan bill nowadays is challenging. Take for instance the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which providers health insurance for low-income children. The House passed a CHIP bill one week ago. Democrats objected to the proposal because it cut funds to the ACA’s Prevention and Public Health Fund, a dedicated funding stream for a broad range of programs. The Senate has been relatively silent on reauthorizing CHIP funding, even though some states are expected to exhaust funds by December.

Protesters started in
Activists started in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office, Monday, November 13, 2017. (CREDIT: Amanda Gomez)

Activists are hoping congressional members attach relief funds to the Alexander-Murray health bill, bipartisan legislation by Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA) meant to repair the ACA marketplace. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said the bill has 60 votes. But like CHIP, there hasn’t been much movement. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) introduced a bill that would set aside $45 billion per fiscal year through 2027 for opioid prevention and treatment services. So far, the bill has received minimal traction and virtually zero interest from GOP lawmakers.

The Opioid Network is modeling ACT UP’s organizing, which was among several grassroots organizations that forced a nationwide conversation on the AIDS epidemic. ACTS UP fought for legislation and medical research, and eventually helped secure $3 billion from the federal government. As Slate’s Zachary Siegel points out, although the opioid epidemic mirrors the AID’s crisis, there are many obstacles activists need to overcome, especially sufficient treatment for recovery activists to mobilize in the first place.