Pennsylvania lawmakers have little time to deal with opioids

Karen Langley

HARRISBURG — The opioid epidemic that has claimed lives across Pennsylvania and the nation will get its highest-profile focus at the Capitol this week, when Gov. Tom Wolf addresses a joint session of the General Assembly about what can be done.

Gov. Tom Wolf speaks before he signs the medical cannabis bill into law in the rotunda of the Capitol in Harrisburg, Sunday, April 17, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

But with few legislative session days scheduled between the Wednesday address and the November election, one legislator heavily involved in the issue criticized the effort as a public relations move, while another said that attention to the issue is meaningful in itself but also cautioned about the likelihood that many bills will pass.

Rep. Aaron Kaufer, R-Luzerne, one of the co-chairs of the new PA Heroin, Opioid Prevention and Education Caucus, said Friday that he was disappointed the General Assembly is not going to hold a talked-about special session dedicated to legislation on the issue. He said he believes there is now too little time left to deliver bills that have not already passed one legislative chamber.

“I think this is more about PR and more about everybody feeling good than actually getting something done,” he said, adding: “The joint session is just more talking about the problem we already know exists.”

Kaufer, 28, said he has lost a number of high school classmates to overdoses and that he does not want to go to another funeral. In all, 3,383 drug-related overdose deaths were reported in 2015 in Pennsylvania, up 23.4 percent from the number the previous year, according to a report from the Philadelphia field division of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Williamsport, chairman of the legislative Center for Rural Pennsylvania, which has held hearings on the issue across the state, said it is an important starting point for the Legislature and governor to recognize that the state has a problem. But he noted that legislators do not have many voting days scheduled after the day of the speech.

“What can we do in six days?” he said. “I don’t know. Hopefully we can agree on some non-controversial-type things and get them through.”

Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, sounded a similar note, given the number of remaining session days.

“I think it’s going to be a challenge to get much done,” Frankel said, “even though there seems to be a lot of agreement on the need to do something.”

If work remains undone, he said, a platform for moving forward will remain in January. Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, said the Legislature should begin a special session on the issue when it reconvenes in January, though he said members should be able to deliver some bills to the governor this fall.

Speaking to reporters last week, Wolf, a Democrat, said he wants to showcase in his address what elected officials can accomplish when they work together.

“We have worked together to do some good things in addressing this opioid crisis, this epidemic. Some call it a plague,” he said. “We still have work to do, and let’s bring some of these bills that are in the hopper, let’s bring them out and get them to my desk.”

Asked on another occasion last week about the amount of time left to get legislation through, Wolf said the Legislature has shown it can move quickly when there is the will to do so.

One of Wolf’s top agenda items is to require that doctors check an online database of patient drug histories any time they prescribed a controlled substance. The law currently demands only that doctors check the first time they prescribe a given drug.

The measure is meant to prevent painkiller addicts from getting drugs from multiple doctors at the same time.

“Addicts are very entrepreneurial, smart people,” and they’ll find a way to get around the effort if doctors don’t have to query the database regularly, said Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-Bensalem, who wrote a bill demanding the drug history checks.

The Pennsylvania Medical Society has taken the position that checking every time would be time-consuming and redundant for busy doctors.

Perhaps the most controversial measure endorsed by Wolf would bar emergency doctors from prescribing more than seven days worth of opioids, with limited exceptions. Violators could face discipline against their licenses to practice medicine. The Pennsylvania Medical Society has spoken against the bill, saying that details of the ever-changing practice of medicine should not be governed by hard-and-fast laws.

A bill that lines up with Wolf’s position has already passed the House, 174-19.

“We want to see prescribing patterns be a certain way, and to prevent addictions,” said Rep. Rosemary Brown, R-East Stroudsburg, the prime sponsor of the bill.

She said she has heard there’s “strong support” for her bill in the Senate, though it is likely to be amended. Doctors are worried that members of their profession might lose their licenses if they run afoul of the proposed restrictions.

“They will be held to standards and they will be held accountable, but this is not meant to be a grab at anybody’ license,” Ms. Brown said Friday.