Wagner unveils 'first real plan' to tackle opioid epidemic

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch

Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner visited York County to lay out what he called the "first real plan by a governor" to combat Pennsylvania's opioid epidemic. 

The speech, given to the Rotary Club of York at the Country Club of York on  Wednesday, Sept. 12, was the candidate's third major policy reveal since hitting the campaign trail.

Five-pronged plan: During the speech, Wagner laid out a five-pronged plan to combat the "code red crisis," including suing pharmaceutical companies — which he wouldn't name — and giving the death penalty to those who commit high-level drug crimes.

The plan also includes:

  • Enhancing access to recovery treatment through fast-tracking the licensing of entities wanting to treat substance abusers
  • Increasing funding to treatment programs, especially those that have proved successful
  • Increasing prevention efforts through education

"There isn't a person in this room that doesn't know someone who has been affected by this crisis," Wagner said. "This is a serious, serious crisis. We're going to deal with it with swiftness. A true leader that has ideas to bring to the table is critical, and I have lots of ideas."

More than 5,000 state residents died from drug overdoses in 2017, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Wagner said he wouldn't wait until being elected to begin bringing together professionals and other resources to brainstorm solutions to lower the death toll.

He announced he has scheduled an opioid addiction summit for Tuesday, Nov. 27, to bring "all stakeholders" to the table to talk about the epidemic, including educators, students, law enforcement officials and more.

Out of that summit would come a "crisis action team" composed of some of those in attendance to help create and carry out his five-pronged plan, he added.

But Wagner most strongly focused on suing pharmaceutical companies, revamping education of drug abuse and highlighting Democratic incumbent Gov. Tom Wolf's track record on the epidemic.

Gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner speaks during a Rotary Club of York luncheon at the Country Club of York Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018. He outlined his plan to battle the opioid crisis in the state. Bill Kalina photo

Although Wolf put a moratorium on the death penalty in 2015, Wagner said he would immediately get rid of the ban on capital punishment if elected and "work with the state Legislature" to make certain drug crimes — which he wouldn't specify — punishable by death.

Wagner also stated "traditional education" of substance abuse isn't enough in schools.

The candidate said children should start drug education "as soon as they get to day care at 1, 1½, 2 years old" and be told that "drugs can kill you; needles are bad."

Citing York Suburban School District, where the country club and Wagner's Spring Garden Township home are located, Wagner went on to emphasize the ease of acquiring drugs.

"You can get any kind of drug in York Suburban School District you want," he said. "It's time school boards, superintendents, teachers and parents get their heads out of the sand and realize how bad this problem is."

Timothy Williams, the district's superintendent, didn't respond to phone calls requesting comment.

The Wolf campaign: Wagner accused Wolf, who also was invited to the event but declined because of scheduling reasons, of not being personally involved in the fight against the epidemic.

But the Wolf campaign got ahead of Wagner's criticism and released a news release just an hour before Wagner took the stage.

"As governor, Scott Wagner would deny treatment to those suffering from opioid addiction,” said Wolf campaign spokeswoman Beth Melena. “He would rather give handouts to insurance companies than help people suffering from substance use disorder get the treatment they need."

Gov. Tom Wolf addresses media during a press conference at the York County Office of Emergency Management in Springettsbury Township, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The early response referred to Wagner's documented desire to roll back Wolf's expansion of Medicaid that began in 2015.

Wolf's campaign website states the measure helped "125,000 people with substance use disorder get high quality, affordable treatment."

Following his speech, Wagner maintained his desire to roll back the expansion but said he plans to "look toward the federal government for a waiver" to help addicts maintain their increased access to treatment in a manner that will allow the state to "oversee the money." 

Wolf has made the opioid epidemic a priority since being elected in 2014, and his website provides a long list of actions the Wolf administration has taken to combat it.

The actions include holding 79 roundtable events statewide to address the issue, launching a prescription-monitoring program and creating a drug takeback program.

Most recently, Wolf renewed his 90-day opioid disaster declaration to bolster efforts to combat the epidemic, a move that Wagner said is "nothing more than a PR maneuver and means nothing."

Additionally, under the Wolf administration, Pennsylvania Attorney Gen. Josh Shapiro is leading a 41-state coalition to investigate how much of a role opioid manufacturers and dispensers have played in the epidemic.

The investigation helped earned him the 2018 Nathan Davis Award for Outstanding Government Service from the Pennsylvania Medical Society.

However, Wagner said he wants the state to sue as a sole entity, as the coalition is "like being a member of a card club."

Gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner speaks during a Rotary Club of York luncheon at the Country Club of York Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018. He outlined his plan to battle the opioid crisis in the state. Bill Kalina photo

Although the state hasn't formally sued pharmaceutical companies, many counties have taken the matter into their own hands, including York County.

It is one of 17 counties in the state suing opioid manufacturers.

More:York County sues 25 opioid manufacturers, distributors

County District Attorney Dave Sunday wasn't available for comment regarding whether a state lawsuit would benefit the ongoing county lawsuits.

Pharmaceutical company donations: During the speech, Wagner also accused Wolf of taking $1.2 million from pharmaceutical companies for his gubernatorial campaign, referencing donations Wolf has received from the political action committee Fairness PA.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in March that the committee, often touted as a group of lawyers, teachers and progressive donors, also uses money received from pharmaceutical companies to throw at campaigns.

While the PAC has donated $1.1 million to Wolf's campaign, according to Vote Smart, a campaign watchdog organization, it's not clear how much of that money was directly from pharmaceutical companies.

The donations listed on the organization's website explicitly from the pharmaceutical industry show much lower figures.

The organization states that the Wolf campaign has taken just over $85,000 from the "pharmaceutical and health" industry during this election season.

The Wagner campaign has received $35,000 from those same industries.