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Sun Sentinel: “Bipartisan opioid bill will save lives in South Florida, supporters say”

Amid partisan fighting over the future of the Supreme Court, Republicans and Democrats united to pass legislation Friday that supporters say will help put unscrupulous drug treatment providers out of business in South Florida and lower the region’s opioid death toll.

The package of bills will make it a federal crime to pay or receive kickbacks for patient referrals to sober homes, treatment programs and testing laboratories. It also will mandate the U.S. Postal Service collect information on international shipments, a measure that aims to cut off the flow of the synthetic opioid fentanyl from China to the United States.

“In today’s hyper-partisan world where very little seems to get accomplished in Washington, this is a true victory that will save lives,” said Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, who has led a crackdown on “bad actors” in the treatment industry and lobbied for legislation.

The House overwhelmingly approved the legislation Friday, and the Senate is expected to send the measures to President Donald Trump’s desk.

Kickback schemes are already illegal in Medicare and Medicaid, and this bill expands prohibitions to private insurance plans. Violators will face up to 10 years in prison and $200,000 in civil penalties.

The legislation was sponsored by Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio in the Senate and U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-West Boca, in the House.

“These kickback schemes put sobriety at risk for people who have found recovery and have contributed to Florida’s overdose epidemic,” Deutch said.

Fifty-five people in Palm Beach County have been charged under the state’s patient-brokering law, and the change made by Congress to federal law will strengthen law enforcement’s efforts to pressure unscrupulous providers, Aronberg said.

Palm Beach County’s crackdown on rogue sober homes has been credited with helping to lower the number of overdose deaths. Opioid overdose deaths in Palm Beach County are on track to decrease by at least a third from the previous year’s number, according to the Palm Beach County medical examiner.

The legislation also reauthorizes federal funding for drug courts and makes it possible for some nurses and physician assistants to prescribe medication-assisted treatments for opioid dependence, such as buprenorphine, known by the brand name Suboxone. The bill expands Medicaid coverage for inpatient substance abuse treatment and provides funding to develop nonaddictive painkillers.

Aronberg testified Friday morning in Congress, urging lawmakers to pass additional reforms. He wants Congress to change the health-care reimbursement model to reward substance abuse treatment providers that show good results and clarify rules to allow local governments to regulate sober homes.

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