Mother speaks out as bill to prevent opioid addiction stalls in Congress: 'My son is the cost of inaction'

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A bill that aims to stop opioid addiction before it starts has stalled in Congress for more than a year. A mother who lost her son to a fentanyl overdose says the cost of inaction is growing every day.

Kerri Rhodes said a tennis injury turned into a fatal addiction for her son Taylor. She said he was first introduced to opioids after getting shoulder surgery at the age of 15. Rhodes, who is also a licensed counselor, said that started a cycle of relapse and recovery that came to an abrupt halt when his friend found him dead at the age of 20. 

“Taylor said, when I took those opioids, my brain felt normal for the first time,” Rhodes said. “I will have to live with it the rest of my life and regret that I took that prescription and I filled it and that I wasn’t educated enough to know what kind of risk I was putting his brain in. I think having options would have made a difference.”

Rhodes said she was never offered a non-opioid alternative to manage Taylor’s pain. 

Years later, Rhodes said her daughter had the exact same shoulder surgery with a very different outcome because, this time, she fought for another option. 

“When I asked why that is not what we’re doing for everyone the answer I got from the doctor was cost, and I’m like cost? You’re talking to someone whose son died,” Rhodes said. 

While there has been an overall reduction in opioid prescriptions in the United States in recent years, the vast majority of patients still receive opioids to manage post surgical pain.

Advocates say outdated federal policies incentivize the use of opioids and discourage hospitals from turning to non-addictive alternatives because they’re often more expensive to prescribe. 

In a letter sent to members of Congress on Nov. 24, 2020, the American Medical Association laid out the problem. 

“There is currently a financial disincentive for physicians to utilize non-opioid alternatives following surgery because the bundling of these treatments prevents payments from adequately covering their costs,” AMA Vice President Dr. James Madara wrote. “Removing this barrier to providing alternatives to opioids for managing postoperative pain would positively impact patient safety, patient quality, and the drug overdose epidemic.”

The NOPAIN Act aims to expand access to FDA-approved non-opioid pain management approaches in all outpatient surgical settings by changing how the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) reimburses health care providers for the next five years.

The bipartisan bill was revived more than a year ago but it’s still gathering dust in the Senate Finance Committee. 

Rhodes said she has been asking U.S. Senator Mark Warner’s office for help since the end of 2020. She sent Warner a letter on Oct 3, 2022 after her latest visit to Capitol Hill.  

“It is a straightforward bill and the consequences of not supporting it are dire. Respectfully, you are sitting on the fence while people are dying and lives are being destroyed,” Rhodes wrote.

In an interview on Wednesday, Warner said he has since “done his homework.” He said he plans to sign on as a cosponsor. Warner said there are situations where opioids are an appropriate intervention for pain but there is a growing pool of alternatives.

“My job as a member of the Senate Finance Committee is to do my own research and to figure out if there are other alternative pain management methods that are safer,” Warner said. “I’ve been convinced at this point that there are these non-opioid based alternatives. That’s why I’m joining the legislation now. That’s why I hope I’ll encourage other members to join.”

Senator Tim Kaine, who is also a cosponsor, said the NOPAIN Act will give the federal government better data showing which providers are overprescribing opioids. 

“Shining a harsh spotlight on what providers are doing is going to move us in a better direction,” Kaine said.

Kaine said the NOPAIN Act hasn’t passed yet because Congress hasn’t take up a health-focused bill in the last year. He said there may be opportunities to attach it to broader legislation before the end of the year.

“Whether it happens by December 31 or not, I do think we’re very likely to get this bill passed because it does have strong bipartisan support,” Kaine said. 

According to a tracker from Voices for Non-Opioid Choices, the NOPAIN Act has over 160 co-sponsors across both chambers, including 49 senators. 

“It is time to get this bill passed. It still has a long way to go. There is a lot more convincing to be done but I’m ready to join the team,” Warner said. 

As the overdose death toll rises, Rhodes said families can’t afford to wait for more options. 

“My son is the cost of inaction. People having options can only help us in this fight and we need all the help we can get,” Rhodes said.