The Lead

‘Our fight is not over,’ Gov. Wolf says — but Pennsylvania’s opioid disaster declaration is

By: - August 25, 2021 1:22 pm

Gov. Tom Wolf speaks at Lancaster Health Center on Friday, 7/24/20 (Office of the Governor)

With overdose deaths at a three-year high, Pennsylvania’s opioid disaster declaration ended Wednesday.

“But our fight is not over,” Gov. Tom Wolf said in a statement. “We have an obligation to support individuals desperately in need of substance use disorder services and supports. With or without a disaster declaration, this will remain a top priority of my administration.”

First signed by Wolf to combat the opioid epidemic in January 2018, the disaster declaration expanded access to naloxone — which treats narcotics overdoses — and provided communities with resources and training to help treat addiction. Since its enactment, Wolf has renewed the order 15 times.

His authority, however, was sharply curtailed following a constitutional change voters approved in May that limited emergency orders to 21 days unless the General Assembly opts for an extension.

Following the most recent Aug. 4 renewal, Wolf asked the Republican-controlled Legislature to consider an early return to Harrisburg to vote on an extension, citing rising overdose deaths due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Preliminary numbers for 2020 show Pennsylvania reported the most overdose deaths — 4,715 — in a single year since Wolf first issued the declaration. That’s a 14 percent increase from the year before. Forty-six out of 66 counties in Pennsylvania saw a rise in cases, and officials anticipate more as numbers become final.

House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, and Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, denied the request, citing laws passed by the Legislature to combat the crisis. They added that a formal declaration isn’t necessary to continue efforts to address addiction.

The Legislature has also passed laws that encourage using beds in healthcare facilities for detoxification and treatment; require instruction on opioid abuse in schools; establish standards for recovery houses, and regulate the distribution and disposal of medications.

In their letter to Wolf, Cutler and Corman reiterated their commitment to addressing the opioid crisis. They asked the governor for suggestions on how to continue treatment and recovery efforts.

Lawmakers will reconvene in Harrisburg late next month.

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