New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) got what she wanted the first week of November. The legislature has been forced into an emergency session to work on a plan to deal with the state’s heroin addiction epidemic.
But Hassan will be dealing with a very contentious body of 400 politicians. After all, she is committed to forcing them to work through the holidays if need be.
It is not that there is a debate over the enormity of New Hampshire’s epidemic of heroin and prescription pain medication addiction.
The state’s own Department of Health and Human Services hasn’t been shy about telling the people of New Hampshire how many of their friends and relatives are hooked on smack and painkillers like Oxycodone.
The numbers prove the harsh reality that New Hampshire tops the nation for addiction, especially for harder drugs like heroin. Worse than that, the numbers show the problem is only getting worse.
A New Hampshire DHHS report released in July 2014 showed since 2004 the number of people admitted to state-funded drug abuse treatment programs had risen by 90 percent for heroin use and 500 percent for prescription opiate abuse.
To stem this tide, Hassan has proposed an $11.1 million program that would include stricter penalties on the sale and distribution of fentanyl, a new statewide drug court program and an increase in funding for local anti-drug efforts in New Hampshire.
She wants the legislature to work through the holidays if that is what it takes to approve a new program to battle drug addiction. The New Hampshire Executive Council approved her call for the legislature to return to Concord to meet in special session.
But legislative Republican leaders have proposed their own plan to attack New Hampshire’s drug crisis and say they will deal with it in January when the legislature is scheduled to return to work.
“We had previously told Governor Hassan that we intended to expedite legislation to deal with this crisis as soon as we returned in January. I am disappointed that she has taken this step to bring the entire legislature back to Concord in an attempt to try and hastily push through a solution,” said House Speaker Shawn Jasper (R).
Senate Finance Chairwoman Jeanie Forrester (R) pointed out she had fought for a 75 percent increase in state funding to battle substance abuse in the 2016-17 budget, but that money had yet to be distributed because of Hassan’s veto of the budget.
“We are committed to combating the substance abuse epidemic through the legislative process; however, I am concerned by the governor’s proposal that increases spending by $11 million when we do not know where this funding is coming from, have yet to see the final financial picture from 2015, any measurable results from the 75 percent increase in substance abuse funding from the 2016-17 budget or how those dollars are being used,” Forrester said.
The conservative group Citizens for a Strong New Hampshire, a consistent critic of the state’s Democratic governor, is not giving Hassan any margin for error on this issue.
“Over the summer, Granite Staters unfortunately suffered under the unresponsive Governor Hassan. This apathetic individual was willing to use her budget veto to hold up a 75 percent increase in funding to combat drug abuse simply to advance her liberal agenda,” said Citizens for a Strong New Hampshire spokesman Derek Dufresne.
“Now that she has made her political intentions clear, New Hampshire is forced to suffer under the rushed Governor Hassan. This frantic chief executive is exploiting the problem with no consensus or bipartisan plan to truly fight the epidemic.”
The influential New Hampshire Union Leader editorialized Nov. 4 that Hassan was more interested in “political theater” than in addressing the state’s heroin epidemic.
“After sitting on her hands since July, she suddenly thinks the situation so urgent that the Legislature has to spend Thanksgiving holding committee hearings. The politics behind Hassan’s sudden urgency are transparent. She wants to leverage the governor’s office to bolster her campaign for U.S. Senate,” the paper wrote.
“If the situation is truly this urgent, Hassan would suspend her Senate campaign, and her fundraising, so she can concentrate full time on helping lawmakers come up with a solution. Until she does, there is no reason to take her seriously.”
But Hassan contended, while the slings and arrows of outraged Republicans and other conservatives were flying all around her, that she had taken decisive action against the New Hampshire heroin epidemic.
Hassan pointed out she had not only called for a special session of the legislature but convinced the state’s Board of Medicine to rewrite its rules regarding the way physicians prescribe painkillers.
The board approved a set of emergency rules on Nov. 4 for the prescription of medicine to alleviate pain and laid out a plan to work with the medical community to come up with new permanent rules.
The emergency measures adopted by the Board of Medicine include ensuring that patients have informed consent about the risks of opioids, that physicians comply with federal guidelines for best practices on the prescribing of opioids, and that for patients with chronic pain physicians conduct a thorough risk assessment using an evidenced-based screening tool, create a treatment plan, conduct periodic review and follow-up, and conduct appropriate toxicology screenings.
“The Board of Medicine’s action, along with the Executive Council’s approval of my call today for a special legislative session on substance abuse, is important progress in our continued efforts to strengthen the state’s response to the heroin and opioid epidemic,” said Hassan.
“I look forward to continuing to work with members from both parties, physicians, other prescribers, patients and all stakeholders on a comprehensive legislative package to combat the substance abuse crisis,” she added, “and help save lives, including additional efforts to develop stronger, more explicit and more up-to-date rules on the prescribing of opioids.”