Lawmakers Agree on Drug Epidemic Focus, but are Divided on Best Path Forward

Oct 28, 2015

Gov. Maggie Hassan and Republicans are calling for action on the state's heroin epidemic — but they differ on how best to move forward.
Credit Chris Jensen/NHPR

Here's an issue with bipartisan consensus: Both parties agree the opioid epidemic is one of the most pressing challenges facing New Hampshire. But Democrats and Republicans in the State House are not quite yet reading from the same script on how to tackle this problem.

When it comes to policy solutions, there is some consensus. Top Republicans and Gov. Maggie Hassan have called for action on a number issues: stricter penalties for drug dealers, better coordination between state and local law enforcement agencies, tighter rules for the state’s prescription drug monitoring program, and more drug courts across the state.

Still, there’s quite a bit of compromise yet to be reached when it comes to how, and when, to enact those proposals.

On one side, Hassan is calling for swift movement on several fronts. She’s asking Republican leaders to call a special session of the Legislature in the coming weeks, and she’s proposed changes to the Board of Medicine’s rules for prescribing opioids. Those proposals prompted pushback from the Board of Medicine and other officials who accused the governor of trying to circumvent the normal rulemaking process.

Republican leaders agree the situation is urgent. But they have stressed caution in how the state moves forward.

In a press conference Wednesday morning, Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, flanked by eight other Republicans from both chambers, outlined an approach that sticks to the traditional legislative process.

“The governor certainly has the ability to call for a special session, but what’s really most important is that we do this in a coordinated, comprehensive, well-thought-out way so that we don’t make any mistakes, so that we solve the problem and we don’t have to come back and correct it,” Bradley said.  “It’s vitally important that we do our work and we get it done right.”

Republicans plan to introduce a package of bills to address substance abuse when the Legislature reconvenes in January.  Their priorities include expanding drug courts, improving the state’s prescription drug monitoring program, examining long-term recovery options and adding new reporting requirements for suspected incidents of drug diversion.

The future of the state’s Medicaid expansion program wasn’t addressed at the Republicans’ press conference, but Hassan has cited this as a major priority in her vision for addressing substance abuse in the long run. The governor also said she would back plans to create new rules for pain and methadone clinics in New Hampshire, and she wants to “streamline” insurance procedures for people trying to get into hospital detox beds.

“More than anything else,” Hassan said, “we need to focus on reauthorizing our bipartisan Medicaid expansion plan because we know that that will be the best, fastest way to get more treatment up and running.”

The timing of how and when lawmakers might deal with these ideas remains open for debate. Hassan has the authority to convene a special session, with the support of the Executive Council, without going through the Legislature. She didn’t rule that option out on Wednesday — but, she said, “I want to make sure we have a constructive process.” If a special session isn’t called, Hassan said she wants to see an expedited bill ready for her review by the end of January.

“It does take willing partners, we want to make sure a special session is productive,” Hassan told reporters Wednesday afternoon. “But I was encouraged today that Sen. Bradley and others have some legislation that they want to continue to work on with us, and I think a special session would be a great opportunity to do that.”

Hassan and the legislators acknowledge that they might disagree on the specifics of how to address these and other issues, but both sides maintain that they’re focused on finding common ground as they move forward.

Sen. Dan Feltes, a Concord Democrat who was among the spectators for the Republican-led press conference this week, said there’s already been a lot of cooperation between the two parties. He’s signing on as a co-sponsor on a bill Bradley introduced to expand drug courts, for example.

“I would have been willing to stand alongside on many of the concepts that were raised today,” Feltes said. “Many Democrats have worked on those concepts, including the governor, and it could have been an opportunity to have a bipartisan call for a comprehensive approach to the crisis.”