Welch touts $3.3 billion to battle opioid addiction, decries stalemate over gun safety

MIDDLEBURY — Vermont Congressman Peter Welch is praising a new, $3.3 billion federal commitment to fight opioid addiction, but he’s criticizing House leadership for not allowing the chamber to vote on substantive gun safety measures.
Welch, a Democrat in his sixth term in the U.S. House, shared his views on those and other subjects during an interview at the Addison Independent on Thursday. Welch was in Addison County to visit the BristolWorks industrial park and participate in a roundtable discussion in Middlebury about the impacts of opioid addiction.
Thursday’s discussion in Middlebury included Addison County human services providers and emergency responders who see daily evidence about how the abuse of opioids is destroying people’s lives. He was pleased to share the good news about the fed’s new financial commitment to helping patients and those who treat them in the trenches.
“As bad as the times are in Washington, we just passed a budget that substantially increases funding to help first responders address the opioid epidemic,” Welch said.
The money is included in the omnibus budget bill passed last month by Congress. Around $1 billion of those resources will be funneled to a new State Opioid Response Grant program.
Since opioid addiction knows no political boundaries, there was bipartisan support for the $3.3 billion request, according to Welch. And he’s pleased the bill specifically earmarks $4 million for Vermont, and the state will be able to compete for another $130 million reserved for rural communities to intensify services for those addicted to opioids.
Vermont’s lone U.S. House representative believes the state is in a great position to compete for the new opioid addiction-related funding. That’s because, according to Welch, the feds are impressed with Vermont’s “hub and spoke” model for treating those addicted to opioids.
The state has nine regional hubs that support patients with complex addiction problems. At more than 75 local “spokes,” doctors, nurses and counselors offer ongoing opioid use disorder treatment fully integrated with general healthcare and wellness services, according to Vermont’s “Blueprint for Health,” an initiative that emphasizes community-led strategies for improving health and well-being.
“The federal government has got to get the money back to the first responders,” Welch said. “This is a problem that can only effectively be addressed in the communities.”
Meanwhile, Welch has offered legislation seeking more funding for research into opioid-free painkillers. This, Welch hopes, would ultimately allow physicians to prescribe effective pain medication that doesn’t possess the addictive, intoxicating properties of narcotics.
“In all likelihood, we’re going to pass that (bill) soon,” Welch said.
Federal lawmakers are also considering legislation that would allow pharmacists to partially fill physicians’ opioid prescriptions in an effort to reduce the chances for patients overdosing and becoming addicted.
While Congress took action on opioids, it has thus far missed the mark on gun safety, according to Welch. He praised student activists for their demonstrations in wake of the Parkland, Fla., high school shootings and what he described as a “near miss” at Fair Haven Union High School.
Welch attended a forum last month dealing with the Fair Haven case, involving a student who had allegedly planned to shoot up the school.
“It was clear to me at the meeting how terrified parents were, that what they thought they could take for granted, when you drop your kids off at school or at the bus, they would be safe — they’ve lost that confidence,” Welch said.
But he believes parental and student concerns about gun safety are reverberating to state and federal officials.
He noted the Vermont Legislature’s recent success in passing gun safety measures through S.55, which calls for expanded background checks, raising the minimum age for gun purchases to 21 in many cases, banning bump stocks, and banning the purchase of high capacity magazines.
Welch believes gun control at the federal level will continue to be “a tough nut to crack,” due to politics.
He noted President Donald Trump’s continued opposition to substantive gun control. And Welch voiced frustration that U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, won’t allow gun safety legislation to come up for a vote.
“It’s much to the discredit of his speakership that he’s not allowing a vote on issues where there’s an immense desire on the part of the public for us to act,” Welch said.
Given the recent spate of school shootings, polling results and public outrage, Welch believes the time is ripe for gun legislation.
“If Speaker Ryan were to put on the floor the issue of a universal background check, it would pass,” Welch said. “If he were to put on the floor the gun clip size, it would pass. And I believe an assault weapons ban would pass.”
He urged advocates to keep up the pressure on their elected officials.
“Students speaking out is forcing the politicians to come to grips with gun safety, finally,” Welch said.
Welch and his Democratic colleagues are looking toward this November’s mid-term elections for a potential boost in their Congressional numbers. He’s heartened by the results of some early contests, such as Democrat Conor Lamb’s victory over Republican candidate Rick Saccone in Pennsylvania’s conservative 18th district.
The GOP currently holds a 238 to 193 edge over Democrats in the U.S. House, and a 51 to 47 majority in the Senate.
“We have a very, very solid shot at (a House majority),” Welch said. “The next step is up to the voters. Do they want a continuation of the current leadership, or do they want a check and balance on President Trump, a person who is not up to the job and is acting dangerously in many ways?”
Welch was candid in his criticism of Trump.
“It’s totally unprecedented,” Welch said. “President Trump appears to flit from tweet to tweet. The policy he announces today is the one he repudiates tomorrow. He’s got no stable cabinet, no stable set of advisors. From a basic stability in leadership requirement to get things done, it’s not there.
“The president is the first to say he operates from ‘his gut.’” Welch added. “But his gut seems to change from Monday to Wednesday.”
It has created a climate “that makes it harder to get things done,” Welch said.
He believes Trump has been his own worst enemy when it comes to undermining some of his initiatives that could otherwise gain bipartisan support. Welch specifically cited his sudden imposition of massive tariffs to correct the U.S. trade imbalance with China.
“I think China is ripping us off with unfair trade practices, and we should respond to that, but we shouldn’t take a shotgun approach where we tip out allies rather than just our adversary,” Welch said.
Trump is also drawing widespread criticism for his attacks on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
“There is no question … there was Russian interference in the campaign,” Welch said. “The president repudiates the findings of his own intelligence agencies. Why? There’s some significant evidence that people associated with his campaign were in close communication with Russians. It’s why I believe one of the most important things we can do is fight to maintain the independence of the Mueller investigation. And that investigation has to run its course.”
Welch lamented the ongoing financial hardship of Vermont farmers who are trying to weather three consecutive years of depressed milk prices. Finding a solution has been tough.
“My view is we’ve got to make some kind of supply management; you’ve got to have some kind of balance between supply and demand,” Welch said. “There’s such resistance to that that it puts enormous pressure on our local agriculture. With the oversupply generated largely by these huge dairy operations, it’s crippling to local dairy. It’s a real challenge in Washington to get support for some kind of supply management.”
The current federal Margin Protection Program (MPP) for dairy helps dairy producers when the difference between the milk price and the average feed cost — the margin — falls below a certain dollar amount selected by the producer. But the program “hasn’t provided the safety net they need in the low-price time,” according to Welch.
He promised Vermont’s Congressional delegation will do “all we can” to improve the MPP, but Welch believes an improved Farm Bill is likely to be of more help to dairy farmers.
“My expectation is that (the Farm Bill) won’t get passed this year, that it will be next year,” Welch said.
That delay might actually benefit farmers, in that 2019 could produce a Congressional makeup more sympathetic to the agricultural industry, according to Welch.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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