DeGette speaks on homelessness, opioid crisis

Denver area congresswoman hopes to bring more science into government


At the start of a new Congress, Colorado Community Media caught up with U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colorado), who represents the 1st Congressional District, to talk about some of her plans for the coming year.

The district comprises Denver, Englewood, Cherry Hills Village, Glendale and Sheridan.

DeGette is chair of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee under the Energy and Commerce Committee. She has been part of the Committee on Energy and Commerce since she was first elected to Congressin 1997.

She plans to bring more science-based evidence to hearings and investigations of these committees. “I don't think that you can legislate unless you have a strong scientific foundation," she said.

On Feb. 7, Oversight and Investigations held its first hearing on the separations of children from their parents at the border. DeGette said hearings will also be held on climate change, drug pricing and family planning.

During the government shutdown from Dec. 22, 2018 to Jan. 25, 2019, DeGette held outreach events with Coloradans who had been furloughed. In addition to stress on families and frustration at not being paid, DeGette said many people talked about their concerns fort the future of government programs and staffing.

Can you talk about some of the long-term impacts of the government shutdown on your constituents?

Long term, if you keep doing this, it's going to have a corrosive effect on our economy, but also it's going to, I think, deter people from going into government service. People have to think really hard about whether they're going to make these family sacrifices.

I think that if this continues, it's not only going to erode our economy but it's going to erode our ability to get highly skilled professionals to come into these jobs.

What is Congress looking at with the opioid crisis, and how will it impact municipalities like Denver and Englewood?

The Oversight sub-committee last year did a really robust series of hearings on the opioid crisis. We got a really good handle on, number one, the extent of the crisis and, number two, what you need to do to prevent the crisis and to treat people.

Unfortunately, it's not an easy solution and it's going to be very costly. So at the end of the year we passed a whole basket of bills. I think I had three bills in this basket — it was like 42 bills — but they really nibbled around the edge of this: adjusting some policies here and there, doing some studies.

I think what we need to do is we need to have a czar within HHS (Health and Human Services), just like we did with AIDS. We had an AIDS czar within HHS to coordinate all of this, and we need to have adequate funding. So, for example, this office ... would help coordinate state programs or responsible prescribing.

In Colorado now, we actually do have a system. We were one of the worst states, and then some years ago we set up a system, a computer system and an education system for doctors to help with responsible prescribing. Also, our hospital association and our hospitals are starting to work on alternatives to opioids for pain management. We actually went from the back of the pack to the front of the pack. But we need to be able to do that nationally — not all states are doing that.

The second thing that you have to do is you have to help state and local governments be able to develop addiction treatment that's science-based and can really help people get away from opioid addictions. Medically-assisted treatment is wildly expensive and most state and local governments don't have that money. So you're going to have to commit some real money.

My 21st Century Cures Bill that I did a few years ago, we had $2 billion in that bill for grants to the states for opioid prevention and treatment. Colorado got quite a bit. But that needs to be continued and amped up.

What are your thoughts on the safe injection site in Denver?

I've been talking to medical professionals about this, and to public health professionals, and I'm trying to get some data. We have had the needle-exchange sites, and I've visited the one over on Colfax across from the State Capitol. But there are not a lot of safe injection sites. Vancouver is the main one.

What is being done at the federal level to address homelessness?

There are a number of roles. One of them is to try and break down barriers. For example, at Denver Health, what they have realized is if they take some of their Medicaid dollars and some of their other federal dollars and they use it in part for the wrap-around program — like housing for homeless individuals and for drug counseling and for job training and so on — that helps reduce the cost of medical care because people have a place to live and so they're less sick and so on. That's something that people don't naturally think of in a federal role.

Then the second place we can really help at a federal level is with our funding. I think that you'll see in the Democratic budgets that come out of the House over the next few years real emphasis on funding that will help develop housing for homeless folks.


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