Congressional Addiction Caucus Off to Strong Start

News Feature
By Bob Curley

A historic Congressional caucus built around the issue of addiction treatment and recovery is off to a strong start, with 38 members of the House of Representatives signed up and the group already holding briefings for lawmakers’ staffers.

Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.), an outspoken advocate for addiction services and in recovery himself, announced the formation of the Addiction, Treatment, and Recovery Caucus in February during a meeting with the chairman’s council of The Betty Ford Center. Ramstad described the caucus’ mission as educating lawmakers on the problems of addiction and the need for expanded treatment access. Observers say that the group could address a wide range of issues, from treatment parity to discrimination to budgetary issues.

Co-chaired by Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) — another lawmaker who has spoken openly about his own struggles with addiction — the bipartisan caucus has attracted an impressive 36 members in a few short months. The current roster includes Reps. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), Joe Baca (D-Calif.) Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Ed Case (D-Hawaii), Tom Cole (R-Okla.), Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), James M. Hoeffel (D-Pa.), Dale Kildee (D-Mich.), Jerry Kleczka (D-Wisc.), Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), James R Langevin (D-R.I.), Robert T. Matsui (D-Calif.), Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), Michael H. Michaud (D-Maine), Bob Ney (R-Ohio), John Sullivan (R-Okla.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), Delegate Anibal Acevedo-Vila (D-P.R.), Bob Beauprez (R-Co.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.), Delegate Donna M. Christensen (D-V.I.), Lincoln Davis (D-Tenn.), Gene Green (D-Texas), Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.), Ron Kind (D-Wisc.), Tom Latham (R-Iowa), Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), Michael R. McNulty (D-N.Y.), Alan B Mollohan (D-W.V.), Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), Lee Terry (R-Neb.), and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

“It’s definitely encouraging, but when you consider that one in 10 Americans have people in their families with addictions, it’s not surprising,” said Karin Hope, legislative aide on Ramstad’s staff. Nonetheless, she acknowledged that the formation of the caucus is “a pretty big milestone” for the addiction recovery movement.

“It’s a statement by Congress that this is a serious problem … and we also hope it will help erase the stigma of trying to get help for this problem,” she said.

Hope said the mission of the caucus is broad enough to attract members from across the political spectrum, from liberals concerned about human suffering to fiscal conservatives faced with an estimated $400 billion per year in costs related to untreated addictions. She added that the visibility and attention generated by the caucus could spur more interest in grassroots recovery advocacy, even as advocates work to get more lawmakers to join the caucus. “It’s a chicken-and-egg kind of thing,” Hope said.

Johnny Allem, president of the Johnson Institute, said the caucus is an important forum that would help the recovery movement become more sophisticated in its advocacy. “It has allowed a number of people concerned about our issues to speak up,” he said. Howard Shapiro, director of the State Associations of Addiction Services (SAAS), called the caucus “an important effort that may serve as a focal point for reaching members of Congress to support the resources needed to make positive changes for alcohol and other drug abuse.”

“Everyone in the treatment and recovery field is extremely pleased that this has come together,” added Shapiro.

Hope gave credit to groups like SAAS and Join Together for encouraging people in the addiction field to contact their House members to ask them to join the caucus. Join Together, for example, pointed the 20,000-plus members of its online mailing lists to the Legislative Action Center on the Join Together Online website, where they can quickly and easily contact their local lawmakers about the caucus.

“We recognized this as a unique opportunity to mobilize people in the field from a wide range of perspectives, because these issues are so bipartisan,” said Eric Helmuth, director of Internet services for Join Together. “It gives people an easy opportunity to have legislative contact that didn’t involve opposing or supporting a bill. For legislators, it is a chance for them not to be pressed on legislation, but to be told how important this issue is and enable them to do something positive.”

Helmuth said that more than 700 readers responded to an appeal from Join Together director David Rosenbloom, sending 1,150 messages to 330 members of Congress — about 3/4 of the House of Representatives. “People wrote some of the most eloquent, passionate letters we have seen,” said Helmuth.

For example, Paul Bergman, chairman of the Missouri Recovery Network, wrote to Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.). “I am an alcoholic and have been sober for eight years, and had access to quality substance abuse treatment in 1996,” said Bergman. “Today, that is not the case. Tens of thousands of Missourians are unable to access treatment, and the tragedy of their addiction continues to persist.

“Addiction is a treatable disease, and to deny treatment to Missourians is essentially immoral,” Bergman continued. “The cost to the individual and our communities is death, damage to families, escalating crime, loss of productivity, and deteriorating communities. Please join this caucus and support access to treatment for alcoholics and addicts.”

The caucus recently held its first informational meeting, bringing staff from members’ offices together to hear a presentation on the administration’s Access to Recovery program delivered by drug czar John Walters, as well as an overview of the Ensuring Solutions to Alcohol Problems project at the George Washington University Medical Center.

Advocates for treatment and recovery are currently working to create a similar caucus in the Senate.