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Senator Burr Urges Federal Officials to Apply Lessons from Pandemic to Address Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder Challenges

Burr: Research, innovation, partnerships, and real-time data are key to our success in overcoming other unprecedented public health challenges

Today, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) held a hearing titled, “Strengthening Federal Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder Programs: Opportunities, Challenges, and Emerging Issues.” 

Today’s hearing follows Ranking Member Richard Burr (R-NC) and Chair Patty Murray’s (D-WA)announcement last month that the Committee would be working on meaningful, bipartisan proposals to reauthorize, improve, and expand federal mental health and substance use disorder programs.

Ranking Member Burr’s prepared opening statement:

“Good morning. I am glad that the chair is holding this bipartisan hearing today.

“Even before the pandemic, we knew the need to address mental health and substance use disorders was dire. Opioids took hold and the result was a crisis families and communities had not dealt with for some time. 

“As we look to reauthorize a number of these programs, we face a problem that has been compounded by the pandemic, but can be informed by our COVID-19 response.

“We learned that research, innovation, partnerships, and real-time data are the keys to our success in overcoming an unprecedented public health challenge. Today’s hearing will help us determine how to apply these lessons and these actions to the mental health and substance use challenge that continues to devastate our communities.

“The last time the committee examined our mental health and substance use programs, we heard from Sam Quinones on opioids, who shared his belief that isolation and lack of community was a driving factor in the substance use disorder crisis facing America.  

“Isolation only worsened when the pandemic struck. Months on end of remote learning, time separated from aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends, and teachers, and families with critically ill and dying loved ones who could not say goodbye has taken a tremendous toll on America, especially our children. 

“We are seeing the results of the past two years in the alarming rates of people, particularly young children, arriving in emergency departments in a state of mental health crisis.

“In 2020 alone, the number of young people seeking care for their mental health in an emergency room increased by 31 percent.

“Between 2016 and 2020, the number of children experiencing depression increased by 27 percent, and the number of children experiencing anxiety rose by 29 percent.

“Last year, more than 100,000 people lost their lives to a drug overdose, a nearly 30 percent increase from the year before.  Two-thirds of these deaths were linked to synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl.

“But in the face of these tragedies, we see strength and resilience.  Families turning tragedy into action, to bring awareness and understanding to help others. 

“In hearings over the past year, we have heard examples of leaders and local communities ready to meet these challenges, partnering to bring local solutions to address local challenges.  As we consider reauthorizing these programs, it would serve us well to remember this too.

“Since 2016, we have authorized or reauthorized more than 40 different federal programs to address mental health and substance use disorders.

“In addition, the fiscal year 2022 Omnibus Appropriations bill provided nearly $5 billion for mental health and substance use disorder-related programs.

“But at least nine of these authorized programs did not receive funding.

“We have seen time and time again that creating a new program that does not get funded is a false promise. That creating new program for the press release at a markup isn’t actually a solution.

“So, we need to figure out what we can do with the tools that we have, improve current programs, and fund the programs we do create.

“And we should be honest with ourselves and the country and terminate programs that haven’t received funding in the last five years. If a program hasn’t received funding, it shouldn’t stay on the books.

“We will have to prioritize and answer key questions, like how to better target our programs to make sure they’re both meeting the needs of today, but also have the flexibility to address the needs of tomorrow.  

“To our witnesses, welcome. We need your expertise to ensure we have the right performance measures in place to track progress in the programs you oversee. 

“GAO recently found that many of our mental health and substance abuse programs lack the measures we need to know whether programs are working.

“You only know what you can measure.

“If we cannot track progress in a meaningful way, we will not know how to improve programs to better meet the needs of the people they are intended to serve and reprioritize those that are underperforming.  

“Additionally, we need to make sure that we are using up-to-date data to inform our response and address emerging issues. 

“States and local communities must be empowered to address these issues, and they need accurate information to identify the problems they are facing – like emergence or reemergence of a new drug in an area, or identifying increased rates of suicide in certain populations.

“Sometimes this requires thinking outside the box. We saw communities pull together during the pandemic to come up with solutions that worked – and we need the same spirit and ingenuity for this challenge. 

“One of the trends in that success was partnership with the private sector. Local public-private partnerships are the foundation of many of our successful federal mental health and substance use disorder programs.

“I look forward to hearing more about how SAMHSA is encouraging partnerships and facilitating local engagement through its programs and how this can be improved.

“Leveraging innovation to help address our mental health and substance use disorder crisis is another area I look forward to focusing on and hearing more about. NIMH and NIDA supported research has the potential to advance the field and improve our knowledge of the causes and consequences of mental illness and drug use to better inform prevention and treatment activities.

“And critical to all of this is a strong workforce. This committee reauthorized a number of health workforce programs in 2020 in addition to those included in the pandemic package.

“The health workforce, particularly our doctors, nurses, counselors, and therapists, have been through a lot. They rose to the challenge during this pandemic and it has taken a toll.

“Earlier this Congress, the committee passed the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act, which was just signed into law, to make sure that these providers get the support and care they need for their own mental health and substance use concerns, especially as they continue to care for all of us. 

“I look forward to hearing more about how HRSA is leveraging and prioritizing existing federal health workforce programs to fill gaps in the mental health and substance use disorder workforce.

“I thank the chair.”