Heading Into Substance Abuse Special Session, Some Bipartisan Agreement on Policy Priorities

Nov 17, 2015

Credit Daniel S. Hurd via Flickr CC

With all of the recent posturing at the State House, it might be easy to assume that Gov. Maggie Hassan and Republicans in the Legislature are having trouble finding common ground on how best to tackle substance abuse. But, as lawmakers gear up for a special session devoted to New Hampshire’s opioid epidemic, that’s not necessarily the case.

Yes, Republican leaders at first resisted Hassan’s calls for a special legislative session and have warned that she’s taking too heavy-handed an approach in pushing her proposals. They want to set up a task force to study possible solutions to the state’s substance abuse crisis, with the goal of passing a bill as early as possible when the regular session resumes in January.

Hassan, meanwhile, has warned that the drug problem is too urgent to delay action until January. Last week, she put forward a broad bill to address the issue on several fronts and urged lawmakers to take it up during the special session that begins Wednesday. 

But there are at least a few priorities these two sides can agree on — though they might differ on the exact path forward.

Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, who’s been leading the Republicans’ effort to draw up their own substance abuse proposals, said the group’s legislation won’t be ready in time for the special session. But Bradley and his colleagues expect to focus on several of the same areas that Hassan’s identified in her bill.

Here’s an overview of where the sides do and don’t overlap on this issue, based on conversations with lawmakers, public statements and published proposals.

WHERE TO EXPECT CONSENSUS BETWEEN HASSAN AND REPUBLICANS:

  • The state should provide financial support to help counties set up drug courts and should set up a statewide office to oversee these programs
  • The state should bring criminal penalties for fentanyl in line with those for heroin
  • Insurance coverage should cover certain costs of substance abuse treatment
  • Pain specialists should be added to the Board of Medicine
  • More resources should be offered to state and local law enforcement to increase coordination on drug issues

WHERE THERE MIGHT BE DISAGREEMENT:

THE PROCESS

  • Hassan wants legislation as soon as possible; she introduced a multi-part bill for consideration during upcoming special session.'
  • Republican leaders in the House and Senate want to form a task force to study a few issues during the special session, rather than moving immediately to vote on any specific bills. 

COMMISSION FUNDING

  • Hassan proposes $5 million in additional funding for the Governor's Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention, Treatment, and Recovery over the next two fiscal years.
  • Bradley said Republicans aren’t opposed to increasing funding, in theory — but he wants to see how the commission has used the additional funding already offered to them earlier this year and wants to know more about the state’s overall financial picture before making any new appropriations.

DETAILS OF DRUG COURTS

  • Hassan’s plan would set up a matching grant program to help counties fund drug courts and would set up a statewide office to oversee the program. Her legislation doesn’t include an end date for the program.
  • Bradley and other Republicans are developing a similar bill to expand drug courts that would also offer matching funds to counties, but they’re planning to start out with a six-year authorization of the program before committing to anything more permanent.
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LAW ENFORCEMENT/JUDICIAL FUNDING

  • Hassan’s bill for the special session includes about $5.9 million in additional funding for use toward several items under these areas — to pay for more probation and parole officers, to fund a statewide drug court office and to help local agencies better coordinate on drug issues, among other things.
  • Bradley agrees those priorities are important, but — as with other big spending requests in Hassan’s proposal — he isn’t ready to commit to large expenses until there’s a fuller picture of the state’s finances. Still, he said of the proposals meant to support law enforcement: “I think those, as long as the money is there, they all stand a very good chance of passage.”

PRESCRIBING GUIDELINES

  •  Hassan faced pushback from the state’s medical community and Republicans when she tried to get the Board of Medicine to adopt new rules for prescribing. Her legislation includes several proposed changes to these rules, including: limiting prescriptions for some controlled drugs to a 34-day supply or 100 dosage units, depending on which is the smaller amount, and limiting prescriptions in emergency and urgent-care settings to a five-day supply.
  • Bradley has been particularly critical of Hassan’s attempts to change the prescribing rules, and he said he wants to make sure any changes are “fully vetted” by the medical community before they’re approved.