Will lawmakers return to Harrisburg to re-up Governor’s opioid disaster declaration?

Pennsylvania Politics

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — Voters gave lawmakers a seat at the table when it comes to disaster declarations, but will they return to their seats at the Capitol to extend the governor’s emergency declaration on opioids? That is the big question after Governor Wolf sent legislative leaders a letter asking them to return to Harrisburg and re-authorize his opioid disaster declaration.

Jessica Miller is a recovery specialist for The Rase Project in Carlise. She’s on the front lines of Pennsylvania’s war against drugs, handing out Naloxone, the overdose reversal drug, to those battling addiction.

“I’m out there seeing these people overdosing,” Miller said. “People that are dying. The rates going up,” she said.

Miller calls it a public health emergency and a disaster. So does Wolf, whose letter noted that overdose deaths spiked 16% in 2020 over the previous year. He wants the legislature to re-authorize a 15th extension of the disaster declaration he first signed in 2018 and has been unilaterally re-upping ever since.

“We all understand there is an opioid addiction and overdose death problem here in Pennsylvania,” said Jason Gottesman, Spokesman for House Republicans.

But how lawmakers intend to deal with the problem is still unclear. Spokesmen for House and Senate leaders say they are reviewing the governor’s request. Because of constitutional amendments approved by voters in May, lawmakers have three weeks to give the disaster declaration reauthorization a thumbs up or thumbs down.

But they must return to the Capitol to officially reauthorize. If they don’t, the disaster declaration would expire. Neither chamber can hold sessions virtually anymore, as they did during the pandemic. The provision allowing the House to hold virtual sessions expired on August 1.

The opioid crisis is not political. It ravages people of all parties and persuasions and there’s not a single lawmaker whose constituency is immune. They all want a fix, but re-authorization is not automatic.

“Is a disaster emergency declaration the best way to accomplish that?” Gottesman asks. “That’s the question we’re asking ourselves now.”

Gottesman notes that Wolf said one of the biggest benefits of the disaster declaration is the ability to share information across government agencies and cut down on bureaucratic silos. He wonders if a targeted law wouldn’t be a more permanent fix without giving Wolf broad powers. In his letter, Wolf said he’s willing to collaborate on that with the legislature soon but wants re-authorization now “so that we are able to continue this work without interruption.”

Jessica agrees and declares the disaster designation is making a difference and has saved lives.

“The warm hand-off program that was initiated, the drug take-back, the Naloxone, all of that plus many more things have been amazing,” Miller said of the declaration’s advantages. “We have to keep going because the overdose rates are not going down.”

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