The U.S. House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education and the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Development held a joint hearing on Wednesday, November 8 titled: Close to Home: How Opioids are Impacting Communities. The hearing exposed the harsh realities that many children and families are facing throughout the nation because of the opioid epidemic and witnesses offered ideas on how to ensure better treatment and support for families dealing with addiction.

There are a myriad of ways the opioid epidemic is affecting children and impeding their well-being. According to Chairman Rokita (R-IN), the number of babies born drug dependent increased by 500% between 2000 and 2014. These babies not only need specialized care, they also are at a higher risk for long term behavioral health issues and learning disabilities. Dr. Cox, Superintendent of Allegany Schools in Maryland, spoke about the increases in absenteeism in schools due to parents not being able to take their children to school because of drug use.

Substance use issues are also playing a significant role of children entering the child welfare system, as parents are unable to care for their children or dying due to overdose. In 2015, 38% of children enter foster care due to the drug or alcohol use of a parent. This is causing more children to live with relatives and kin, who often lack the supports to take care of additional children. Toni Miner, spoke of her own struggles with drugs and alcohol and how she is now a kinship caregiver for her own grandchildren due to the addictions of her children.

The good news is that there are ways to mitigate this problem and witnesses at the hearing made a number of recommendations to the Committee. Dr. Wen, who is the Baltimore City Health Commissioner, spoke about the need for Congress to protect and expand insurance coverage for on-demand addiction treatment and to protect Medicaid coverage.

She also urged additional funding in the hardest hit areas, and funding for early intervention home-visiting programs. In addition, witnesses spoke about the need to reduce stigma about drug use, using peer mentors to help addicted people with treatment, education on the dangers of drugs in schools and other community-based settings, and coordination among providers.

At First Focus, we couldn’t agree more. Ensuring healthcare services for children and families by strengthening Medicaid coverage and reauthorizing the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) is a vital part of the equation in helping families get treatment and putting them on the path of recovery. We also strongly support home visiting programs and urge Congress to reauthorize the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting program (MIECHV) so that women and children can get the help they need before drug issues spiral out of control.

Finally, it is imperative the Congress pass the Family First Prevention Services Act which would allow services for families at risk of entering the child welfare system to get substance use treatment, mental health services and in-home parenting skills.

In 2016, 64,000 people died from drug overdose. Children and families cannot wait. Investments and resources must be made available as soon as possible to reverse this terrible trend.