The Capitol building in Harrisburg (Capital-Star photo)
With overdose deaths at a three-year high, lawmakers in Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled General Assembly say they’re not going to extend Gov. Tom Wolf’s opioid disaster declaration.
Wolf extended the declaration, first issued in 2018, for a 15th time on Wednesday — triggering a 21-day limit. Without newly required legislative reauthorization, it will expire on Aug. 26, potentially limiting the Department of Health and the prescription drug monitoring program.
In a letter to the Democratic governor, House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, and Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, said they’re “[committed] to continuing our vital work in the weeks, months, and year ahead.”
Ahead of the renewal, Wolf asked Corman and Cutler to consider coming back to Harrisburg to vote on an extension. Many of the provisions under the declaration are operating under executive authority. However, a renewal means the Department of Health can continue sharing prescription drug monitoring information with other agencies, Wolf said.
Since establishing the program, Pennsylvania has seen a 56.5 percent reduction in the number of people receiving a dangerous drug combination of opioids and benzodiazepine and a 40.4 percent reduction in overall opioid prescriptions, according to the state.
The Legislature has also passed laws that encourage the use of 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.
“While this is not the end of our efforts, we believe we have made some additional significant strides with the passage of legislation as a result of work initiated by our standing committees, the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, state agencies, and other workgroups,” Corman and Cutler wrote.
They added: “To date, we are aware of three states in the country, other than Pennsylvania, that are currently under a disaster emergency in response to the opioid crisis; they are Arizona, Florida, and Massachusetts.”
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.
The COVID-19 pandemic, with subsequent statewide shutdowns, isolation, and limited in-person access to treatment, caused opioid deaths to rise nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We agree this epidemic has not gone away, but rather remains as a more critical issue as ever as we move our commonwealth forward, past the COVID-19 pandemic,” Corman and Cutler wrote. “If not a statewide disaster emergency, we ask that you provide us with specific recommendations so that majority leaders of the Senate and House of Representatives can continue our collaborative work.
Lawmakers will reconvene in Harrisburg in late September.
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