Pa. works to combat opioid crisis

Wolf renews disaster declaration

HARRISBURG — State history shows disaster declarations commonly concern natural events such as floods and hurricanes, but Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf renewed a disaster declaration regarding opioids for the second time in late June.

The 90-day declarations in the combat against opioids are meant to push initiatives through without interruption. In this case, three bills about declaring public health emergencies, destroying unused drugs and having the final word in substance abuse matters are all aimed at fighting the opioid crisis.

The state Department of Health estimates more than 4,600 Pennsylvanians lost their battle with opioid-use disorder in 2016, equaling 13 dying each day from an opioid overdose, according to the department’s opioid data dashboard.

The first declaration was never intended to be a one-time effort, but a method to get “all-hands-on-deck,” said Sara Goulet, deputy press secretary for the Wolf administration.

So far, the declaration has given Wolf the means to focus on the epidemic by monitoring progress and expanding efforts.

Senate Bill 1001 would allow the Department of Health to declare a public health emergency, giving the department power to waive and create regulations, track and treat a disease, illness or event and allow public workers to provide treatment to control the emergency.

The bill would not only apply to opioids but also any other health crisis believed to be caused by:

– A bioterrorist event, a biological, chemical or nuclear agent, a chemical or a nuclear attack.

– The appearance of a novel or previously controlled or eradicated infectious agent or biological toxin.

– A natural disaster, an accidental chemical release or a nuclear incident.

– A disease outbreak or unusual expression of illness.

The opioid crisis would fall under a disease outbreak as opioid-use disorder is a disease, according to Nate Wardle, press secretary for the Department of Health.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, sponsored the bill and called it a narrowly tailored health approach better suited to fight opioids instead of the broad approach of a disaster declaration Wolf now must operate under.

Passing the Senate unanimously, the bill currently sits in the House Health Committee, chaired by Rep. Kathy Rapp, R-Warren.

Rapp said she is currently reviewing the legislation and understands it purpose, but still needs to meet with the administration to ensure the issues of the opioid crisis have and will be addressed.

While it will be months before the bill comes up for consideration in the House, the other opioid-related bills were signed into law the same day Wolf renewed his declaration.

Senate Bill 978 gives hospice staff authority to dispose of unused prescription drugs after a patient dies.

Being that the bill prevents the diversion of opioids, Wardle said the Department of Health supports it as well as House Bill 17, which gives parents the final say in substance abuse situations involving their children under 18 years of age.

Prior to HB17 becoming law, the general belief that parents already had the final say regarding care for their children is partially false, according to Rep. Marcia Hahn, R-Northampton.

The Drug and Alcohol Abuse Control Act wasn’t intended to take away a parent’s say, but to give children 14 or older authority to seek care if the parent wouldn’t allow it. However, under that act, a child 14 or older could refuse to be tested or treated.

Hahn’s bill amends that law so parents can get help for their children.