Senate OKs Bishop bill to curb shipments of synthetic opioids by mail

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
In this Nov. 8, 2017, file photo, a volunteer cleans up needles used for drug injection that were found at a homeless encampment in Everett, Wash.

Washington — The U.S. Senate late Monday overwhelmingly passed a package of legislation meant to help fight the opioid epidemic, including a measure by Rep. Mike Bishop to block the flow of synthetic opioids like fentanyl through the international mail system. 

Bishop, a Rochester Republican, co-sponsored the bill with Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, to close a loophole allowing drug traffickers to ship synthetic opioids via the U.S. Postal Service. 

The package, containing 70 provisions, passed the Senate by 99-1 with Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, voting no.

The package contained two measures co-sponsored by Michigan Reps. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, and Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, including a bill responding to the 2016 overdose death of 30-year-old Jessica Grubb of Ann Arbor.

That bill, called Jessie's Law, passed the House in June, as did Bishop's legislation regarding the Postal Service.

The Senate legislation also incorporated a measure based on a bill by Sens. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, and Shelley Moore Capito, R-West Virginia, to expand access to treatment for adolescents and young adults with opioid addiction.  

The Senate package will need to be reconciled with the House's, which Bishop said he hopes will happen by year's end. 

"We have literally tons of fentanyl, carfentanil coming into our country through the U.S. mail system. It's an open and obvious loophole. It’s happening right under our noses, and we know it," Bishop said Tuesday.

"This is way overdue. As much as I celebrate its passage, it should have happened a long time ago. I'm happy it did pass, but now it's time to implement it."

Fentanyl is among the most potent opioid-based painkillers — roughly 50 times more powerful than heroin — being illicitly manufactured and sold on the streets.

Lawmakers say fentanyl and related compounds (analogs) are often made in Chinese laboratories and enter the United States via the Postal Service, which has a less rigorous screening system than private carriers such as FedEx.

After the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, Congress began requiring private carriers to provide advanced electronic information to law enforcement officers on every package entering the country, aiming to keep out contraband and explosives.

Law enforcement uses the data — including where a package is from, where it's going and what's inside — to identify and halt suspicious shipments. The USPS has been exempt from the requirement to collect similar data. 

“This is a minimum,” Portman said on the Senate floor during debate.

“We at least have to know what’s in these packages coming into our country so law enforcement can stop some of the poison that’s overtaking our communities and robbing thousands of Americans of their God-given purpose in life.”

An estimated 2,356 people died of drug overdoses in Michigan in 2016, exceeding the number of deaths caused by car crashes, according to state data. 

The National Center for Health Statistics found that more than 55 percent of opioid overdose deaths nationwide in the year ending November 2017 involved synthetic opioids, accounting for more than 27,000 overdose deaths, according to preliminary data.

Bishop and Portman's bill would require the Postal Service to ramp up collection of the data on packages by year's end and reach 100 percent compliance by 2020 or risk civil penalties. 

The USPS and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection also will have to provide a report to Congress to demonstrate how they've complied, Bishop said. 

"It requires oversight so that Congress can check up to make sure they’re doing their job," he said.

Postal Service also won't be penalized for issues outside its control such as countries that lack the capacity to collect the data and pose a low risk of violating U.S. laws

"But all the major countries that cause us the biggest concern must comply," Bishop noted.

Jessie's Law

Jessie's Law was inspired by Grubb, who had been clean seven months after treatment in Michigan for her heroin addiction before undergoing hip surgery for a running injury.

Her parents had informed hospital staff about her condition, but that message allegedly never reached the doctor who discharged her. He prescribed 50 Oxycodone pills, and Grubb fatally overdosed that night in March 2016, according to her family.

The bill directs the government to develop guidelines for including a patient's history of addiction treatment in their electronic health records, with that patient's consent.

The package included Dingell and Walberg's Safe Disposal of Unused Medication Act that aims to prevent the diversion of unused medications by granting hospice professionals the authority to safely dispose of unused drugs after a patient’s death.