Wolf urges lawmakers to act fast on opioid addiction bills
HARRISBURG — Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf told lawmakers Wednesday that now is the time to take a stand against opioid and heroin addiction, and he urged quick action on a package of legislation in the waning days of the fall legislative session.
Some 3,500 Pennsylvanians lost their lives to addiction in 2015, Wolf said in an address to a joint session of the state House and Senate, noting that such a loss is like losing the population of Parkesburg, Freeland or Mifflinburg every year.
“The opioid epidemic did not start overnight, and we will not fix it overnight or even in this session,” he told lawmakers. “But by acting on these bills and by putting other ideas on the table, we can continue to stem the tide of opioid abuse in Pennsylvania. We can make progress for the families we have met, the parents who have cried on our shoulders.”
Lawmakers gave a standing ovation after Wolf’s 15-minute speech. Wolf’s policy secretary, Sarah Galbally, said the governor was focused for now on bills that were closest to the finish line in the Legislature and can get to his desk before the legislative session ends Nov. 30.
It does not preclude more action next year, she said.
Wolf’s top fall priorities include passage of bills to require prescribers to check the state’s month-old prescription drug monitoring database every time they prescribe opioids and to limit opioid prescriptions to emergency room patients to seven days. The current requirement to check the database is far more limited.
Wolf has said, however, he does not know whether either provision can pass the Legislature.
The limitation on emergency prescriptions is a narrower version of what passed in Massachusetts, where lawmakers limited all doctors to a seven-day prescription limit, except in certain situations.
Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming, said emergency rooms can be a key source for addicts.
“That’s their 24-hour source,” Yaw said. “The emergency room is always open. They can always go there and get something.”
The bills were developed with input from industry associations of doctors, hospitals and pharmacists, and Wolf and lawmakers say those conversations were constructive rather than confrontational.
After Wednesday, the Senate has six scheduled voting session days left this year, and more addiction-related bills were on the move Wednesday.
That included the Senate’s unanimous passage of Yaw’s bill limiting opioid prescriptions to minors to seven days, except in certain situations. The bill goes to the House.
“What we found out is that minors especially are very, very susceptible to the opioid problem, just because of the makeup of our brain cells at that age,” Yaw said. “I think we have all read stories about former high school athletes that end up addicted … as a result of injuries in sports.”
Not on the shortlists of Wolf or the House and Senate Republican majorities is suing pharmaceutical companies, a course several lawmakers have suggested taking. Neither is a Senate Democratic bill that would impose an assessment on a manufacturer’s or importer’s sale of opioids in Pennsylvania to generate an estimated $60 million a year.
That money would help foot the taxpayers’ bill for addiction treatment and education programs, as well as help pay for the education of addiction counselors.
“There is a desire for the pharmaceutical community to be part of the solution, and that’s really all we’re trying to do,” said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny. “Get them into the mix to help us address what they have been part of and, quite frankly, a part of creating this crisis.”