The Lead

Gov. Wolf asks lawmakers to make an early return to Harrisburg, extend opioid declaration

By: - August 2, 2021 12:55 pm

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf speaking to the press at PEMA headquarters in Harrisburg. Source: Commonwealth Media Services.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has asked the Republican-controlled Legislature to make an early return to Harrisburg to extend the opioid disaster emergency declaration.

In a letter sent Friday to Senate and House leadership, Wolf said he plans to renew the declaration for the 15th time and asked lawmakers to reconvene by Aug. 26 to extend the emergency declaration with its recently expanded powers.

The request comes months after voters opted to restrict the governor’s emergency response powers by amending the state constitution to limit declarations to 21 days and allow for an extension with approval from the Legislature. The most recent order expires on Thursday. Once renewed by the governor, the Legislature can either extend or terminate the order. 

If lawmakers take no action, the declaration will automatically expire after 21 days.

First issued by Wolf in January 2018, the opioid disaster declaration enhanced community-based treatment initiatives by expanding access to the state’s prescription drug monitoring program, naloxone — a life-saving drug that treats overdoses — and recovery programs.

The Legislature has also passed laws that encourage the use of beds in healthcare facilities for detoxification and treatment; require instruction on opioid abuse in schools; establish standards for recovery houses, and regulate the distribution and disposal of medications.

“By working together, Pennsylvania saw a nearly 20 percent reduction in overdose deaths from 2017 to 2020,” Wolf wrote to Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, and House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster.

But the COVID-19 pandemic, which came with statewide shutdowns, isolation and limited in-person access to treatment, caused opioid deaths to rise nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preliminary numbers for 2020 show Pennsylvania reported the most overdose deaths — 4,715 — in a single year since Wolf first issued the declaration.

Many of the provisions under the declaration are also operating under executive authority. However, a renewal means the Department of Health can continue sharing prescription drug monitoring information with other agencies, Wolf said. Since establishing the program in 2016, Pennsylvania has seen a 56.5 percent reduction in the number of people receiving a dangerous drug combination of opioids and benzodiazepine and a 40.4 percent reduction in overall opioid prescriptions, according to the state.

“I hope to collaborate with the General Assembly on a swift legislative solution, but in the meantime, I ask for consideration of an extension of the emergency so that we are able to continue this work without interruption,” Wolf added.

As of now, the Senate will convene on Sept. 20 and the House on Sept. 27. Corman and Cutler have not announced plans to call for an early return to Harrisburg to vote on extending or terminating the opioid disaster declaration.

Jason Thompson, a spokesperson for Corman, told the Capital-Star that the upper chamber has no formal plans to return to Harrisburg earlier. He added that Senate leadership is willing to work with the governor to ensure that resources needed to address the opioid epidemic remain intact.

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