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US House Passes Comprehensive Bill on Painkiller Addiction

FILE - OxyContin pills, an opioid drug, are arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vermont, Feb. 19, 2013. The U.S. House passed a bill targeting addiction to pain medication.

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a comprehensive bill on opioid abuse, a group of 18 measures designed to combat the nation's epidemic of addiction to painkillers.

The legislation takes steps to set up federal grants and a task force designed to examine pain management methods and the prescribing of pain medication.

The vote to pass the measures was an overwhelming 400 to 5. Public awareness of the crisis has been heightened in the past few weeks, after the sudden death of pop star Prince, who died April 21 at age 57 after reportedly seeking treatment for painkiller addiction.

That high-profile news event, combined with the fact that many members of Congress are seeking re-election in November, means the incentive to take legislative action was high.

The Senate is considering similar legislation and, in a rare bipartisan effort, both Democrats and Republicans hope to unite their efforts and give the president one comprehensive bill to sign into law.

On Thursday, the White House released a statement calling on Congress to approve $1.1 billion in new funding for drug treatment listed in President Barack Obama's budget proposal for next year.

Michael Botticelli, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said it is not enough to call attention to the public health crisis. He said "actual funding" is needed to prevent the misuse of opioids and increase access to treatment and recovery services.

Painkiller addiction is a uniquely American problem: While the United States represents only 5 percent of the global population, Americans consume 80 percent of the world's supply of pain medication. Opiate use in the United States has quadrupled since 1999, helped along by low cost and ease of access to opiate painkillers and a common perception among doctors that the risk of addiction was low.

The issue has received major attention only in the past decade, with policymakers and health care professionals struggling to care for the 4.5 million people in the U.S. who are estimated to be addicted to prescription opiates.

VOA's Katherine Gypson contributed to this report.