Wolf plans to call special session to address opioid crisis
June 23, 2016 10:44 PM
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf headed a roundtable discussion about the opioid epidemic in Washington County on June 3.
By Colt Shaw / Harrisburg Bureau
HARRISBURG — Taking a significant step to deal with what he has called a statewide crisis, Gov. Tom Wolf on Thursday said he will call a special session of the Legislature this year to address the prescription opioid epidemic.
The session would convene “by the end of the summer, if not early fall,” said House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Marshall, and will focus on finding solutions to an issue rippling across every community.
The announcement came as lawmakers from both parties and the governor gathered in the Capitol rotunda to renew attention on the problem, one that has never really lost the spotlight.
Almost two-thirds of the 47,000 overdose deaths nationwide in 2014 were opioid-related, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That same year, Pennsylvania recorded about 1,600 overdose deaths from opioid medications and 800 from heroin, the Pennsylvania State Coroners Association reported.
Mr. Wolf has traveled around the state during the past year for roundtable discussions with experts and others on how to prevent or cut opioid abuse.
“Our fellow citizens are looking to us for action,” he said Thursday, calling such addiction “a Pennsylvania problem.”
Other states have also made the opioid crisis a front-burner health issue. Gov. Pete Shumlin of Vermont devoted his entire 2014 State of the State address to opioids. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has spoken passionately about it.
In Pennsylvania, special legislative sessions have historically been reserved for the most important, if not vexing, issues facing the state. Only four times since 2000 have lawmakers convened to brainstorm on a critical, landmark issue.
Terry Madonna, a professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College and a longtime Capitol observer, said such sessions have a “checkered history” of efficacy.
“Many have not produced much in the way of meaningful legislation,” he said.
Still, Mr. Madonna said he would be surprised if this session did not produce results, given the amount of attention on the epidemic.
At their Capitol news conference, legislators noted some progress has been made. A legislative task force was formed two years ago to focus on opioid abuse and deadly overdoses. And on Thursday, the House passed three bills that in part grew out of that task force’s recommendations.
One sets a seven-day limit, with exceptions, on the prescription of opioids in emergency rooms. Another would require health insurers to cover “abuse-deterrent” opioid medication. The third would require doctors and other health providers to further their education in opioid effects before prescribing the drugs.
Each now moves to the Senate for consideration.
The House has also passed a bill setting guidelines for the proper disposal of unused prescriptions, a measure that is also awaiting a Senate vote.
Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Republicans, who control that chamber, said the special session would focus on the existing task force’s recommendations as well as new proposals to tackle the opioid problem.
Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, said the Senate is committed to finding a way to move forward on the issue.
“Rural, urban and suburban areas of our commonwealth are all seeing the devastating impact of heroin and opioid abuse,” he said in a statement. “Legislative policies that we can change or implement to aid in this fight should certainly be advanced.”
The topic also could get direct action from the Legislature before then. Among other measures, Mr. Wolf is pushing for an additional $34 million in next year’s budget to treat over 11,000 residents who currently are receiving no treatment.
The budget deadline is next Friday.
In a statement following the news conference, Scott Shapiro, president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society, lauded the governor and lawmakers for moving toward meaningful change.
“Today in Pennsylvania, opioid abuse and addiction is one of the most troubling issues facing our state,” he said.
Colt Shaw is an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association in Harrisburg: firstname.lastname@example.org, @colt_shaw.
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