Senate Poised to Pass Bill to Stop Flow of Opioids Through the Mail

The Senate appears poised this week to pass a bill intended to shut a window through which fentanyl and other opioids pour into the United States from China through the mail, as lawmakers search desperately for ways to combat an epidemic affecting people of all ages and income levels across the country.

The measure, part of a bipartisan package of legislation to fight the opioid crisis, requires the United States Postal Service to collect electronic information on merchandise arriving in this country, so customs inspectors can screen parcels for fentanyl and other contraband.

Commercial carriers like FedEx, United Parcel Service and DHL are already required to provide such information.

“We are being overrun with fentanyl,” said Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, who led an 18-month study of the illicit imports as chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. “It is 50 times more powerful than heroin. It is very inexpensive. It is coming primarily from China and coming primarily through our U.S. Postal Service, if you can believe it.”

The House approved a similar measure in June and included it in a comprehensive bill intended to reduce opioid addiction and deaths. Some version of the legislation — which would also increase access to certain kinds of treatment and speed research on nonaddictive pain medications — appears likely to become law this year.

The Senate bill — the Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention Act, or STOP Act — includes an unusual provision under which the Postal Service, an independent arm of the federal government, could be subject to civil fines if it failed to meet certain targets for providing “advance electronic information” to the Customs and Border Protection agency.

President Trump promoted the legislation in a recent Twitter post.

“It is outrageous that Poisonous Synthetic Heroin Fentanyl comes pouring into the U.S. Postal System from China,” Mr. Trump wrote. “We can, and must, END THIS NOW! The Senate should pass the STOP ACT — and firmly STOP this poison from killing our children and destroying our country.”

Under the bill, the Postal Service is supposed to provide information on at least 70 percent of international mail shipments, including all of those from China, by the end of this year. And by the end of 2020, it is supposed to provide data on all such shipments. The Postal Service could block or destroy shipments for which the required information was not provided.

The required data includes the name and address of the sender and the contents of packages, as described by the senders.

Federal authorities could waive the requirements for countries that do not have the capacity to provide electronic information if they are found to pose a low risk to the United States and account for a small volume of mail shipments. But, lawmakers said, China does have the capacity to provide the required data electronically.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last month that drug overdoses killed about 72,000 Americans in 2017, a record high. A major factor, officials said, was a continued sharp increase in deaths involving synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, is an author of the bill to curb opioid imports. It would, she said, “close loopholes in our postal system that allow foreign manufacturers to flood our markets with unsafe drugs.”

William Siemer, acting deputy inspector general of the Postal Service, told Congress this year that the agency receives limited electronic data about many parcels, and said that “the information it does receive is often incomplete or inaccurate.” Unlike private shippers, he said, the Postal Service must generally “obtain a warrant to inspect the contents of suspect parcels.”

Another provision of the Senate bill makes clear that the Food and Drug Administration can require additional safety measures for the packaging of prescription opioids. The agency could, for example, stipulate that such drugs must be sealed in plastic blister packs providing single doses or a supply limited to three days or a week.

The bill also authorizes Medicaid to pay for care provided at special treatment centers for babies who have been exposed to opioids in the womb. The babies may have tremors, seizures, breathing problems or other signs of neonatal abstinence syndrome, caused by withdrawal from the drugs.

In addition, the bill accelerates research to develop nonaddictive painkillers and other alternatives to opioids. The National Institutes of Health has devised an elaborate plan for such research.

“I see a nonaddictive painkiller as the holy grail of the opioid crisis,” said Senator Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who is chairman of the Senate health committee.

If passed in its current form, the Senate bill would need to be reconciled with the House measure, which includes a provision allowing Medicaid to cover up to 30 days of treatment in an “institution for mental diseases” for adults addicted to opioids or cocaine.


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