Pa. lawmakers won't extend state's opioid disaster declaration

The Associated Press
A Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) chemist checks confiscated powder containing fentanyl at the DEA Northeast Regional Laboratory on Oct. 8, 2019 in New York. Opioid overdose deaths rose by a record level last year. (Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania's opioid disaster declaration was set to expire on Wednesday after state lawmakers, newly empowered to help manage statewide emergencies, declined the governor's request for another extension.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf first issued a disaster declaration in January 2018 after Pennsylvania set a record for opioid deaths, then renewed it more than a dozen times as the state battled an epidemic that has worsened during the coronavirus pandemic.

Wolf needed legislative approval to extend it again after Pennsylvania voters gave the General Assembly more say over the length of a disaster declaration and the management of it. Those measures appeared on the May primary ballot after Wolf tangled with conservatives and business owners over his COVID-19 restrictions.

The Republican-controlled General Assembly rejected Wolf's request to renew the opioid disaster declaration beyond Wednesday, saying it was no longer necessary since many of its benefits have been accomplished through legislation, executive action and other means. GOP leaders in the House and Senate said the opioid crisis will be a "top legislative priority" in the fall.

After falling nearly 20%, overdose deaths are up again. More than 5,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2020, second to the record set in 2017, according to the Wolf administration.

"Unfortunately, the isolation and disruption caused by the pandemic over the past year and half has also caused a heartbreaking increase in substance use disorder and overdose deaths," Wolf said in a written statement Wednesday, adding: "With or without a disaster declaration, this will remain a top priority of my administration."