HARRISBURG (WSKG) — Governor Tom Wolf has declared Pennsylvania’s opioid addiction epidemic a “disaster emergency.”
Usually, that designation is reserved for things like floods or hurricanes. This is the first time a Pennsylvania governor has used it for a health issue.
The move is designed to let the state cut through red tape to address the opioid crisis more quickly.
Pennsylvania currently has the fourth-highest rate of addiction-related deaths in the country, and while many states are starting to see their rates level off or begin to fall, the commonwealth’s are rising.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Pennsylvania’s opioid-related death toll surged more than 44 percent from 2016 to 2017. Provisional estimates show more than 5,200 people died of overdoses last year.
Governor Tom Wolf was quick to note, the state is already putting significant effort toward fighting addiction.
But he said it’s not enough.
“We’re still losing too many Pennsylvanians. And as long as that happens I’m going to continue to look for better ways to address this epidemic,” he told reporters.
The declaration will create a new Opioid Coordination Group within the state Emergency Management Agency, to serve as a sort of command center. It will also waive 12 regulations the administration says can slow down responses to people in need.
Those include letting high-performing drug treatment facilities bypass some licensing requirements, loosening patient admittance rules to those facilities, and letting emergency workers leave extra doses of the resuscitation drug Naloxone with high-risk patients, in case they overdose again.
No additional funding is involved.
The approach, Wolf said, will be revised as the administration figures out what works.
“This disaster declaration, while it’s not a silver bullet, will open additional avenues to the state to fight back against this public health crisis,” he said.
Acting Drug and Alcohol Secretary Jennifer Smith said she’ll consider making some of the changes permanent if they appear to be making a difference.
“Part of the discussion when we were coming up with a list of potential regulations that we could work on waiving was, ok what happens after the 90 days? For each of the items that we’ve considered, we sort of have what we call a longer-term plan,” she said.
While the move was touted in the state house, some on the front lines of the crisis wondered if the declaration goes far enough to make a difference.
Denise Shanahan struggled to help her daughter Bryanna for over 10 years before losing her to a drug overdose. She said lax rules at rehab facilities made it too easy for people to get drugs while in treatment.
She said she’s skeptical of emergency declarations after President Donald Trump announced opioids were a public health emergency last year, but stopped short of calling the situation a national emergency, which would have meant allocation of funds.
“[Trump] didn’t go as far as he should have. It didn’t open up the resources that it could have opened up,” she said. “So, when they say this, I’m a little hesitant in getting excited.”
Shanahan wants to learn more about the declaration to see if it works to keep prescription drugs away from children — and to keep children and teenagers from making that first bad decision that leads to addiction.
“I think there’s also the thing to try to catch this before the kids delve into this,” she said. “Why is this happening? We need to figure out the underlying reason.”
In Hampden Township, Cumberland County, Police Chief Steven Junkin said he welcomes Wolf’s declaration, but what police really need is to be allowed to intervene when someone poses a high risk to themselves in the same way that they can intervene when someone is suicidal.
“Even though they likely will admit they’re going to die, they’re not even eating, all they care about is the drug, there’s nothing from an administrative or legal standpoint that allows a police officer to get that person into treatment for something,” he said.
He said Wolf’s move to allow officers to issue Naloxone, which can save someone having an overdose, has already saved lives — and law enforcement wants to do more to help.
Pennsylvania is the eighth state to declare an opioid-related state of emergency — joining Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, Virginia, and South Carolina.
A spokesman for the Wolf administration said they studied those efforts, but because most happened within the last year, it’s too soon to fully tell what’s working and what’s not.
A number of state officials have already pledged their support to the administration’s effort, including Attorney General Josh Shapiro and both Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate.
However, House GOP Spokesman Steve Miskin said his caucus is a little miffed the governor opted to act unilaterally, and only told lawmakers about his plan the night before.
“We’re glad he’s taking this seriously, we’re glad he’s working on this issue, but we think that by working together to get things done, especially as everyone thinks there’s such a big divide, he could have bridged that divide,” Miskin said.
The emergency declaration only lasts 90 days, though Wolf said he can declare another one if necessary.