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Wolf declares opioid crisis a state emergency

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In a press conference Wednesday, Gov. Tom Wolf declared a state of emergency over Pennsylvania's ongoing opioid overdose crisis.

"While we have made progress in combating the heroin and opioid abuse crisis and drastically expanded Pennsylvania's response," the governor at today's press conference, "we are still losing far too many Pennsylvanians."

The declaration established an Opioid Command Center to be located within the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency. It also opens up the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, otherwise known as PMP Aware, to be shared by the Department of Health with other state agencies, including the Departments of Human Services and Drug and Alcohol Programs.

Most notably, the declaration alleviates some regulations governing how hospitals and emergency services can offer treatments and services to those suffering with or at risk for an opioid addiction.

Changes include allowing first responders to leave kits of the overdose-reversing drug Naloxone at the scenes of overdoses, as well as allowing pharmacies to work with other organizations to increase supply and delivery of Naloxone.

The order extends these measures for 90 days, though both Wolf and acting secretary of the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs floated the notion that the declaration could open the door to more permanent measures. 

The governor cited statistics on the increasing rate of opioid deaths in Pennsylvania, which ranks fourth in the nation at a time when other states have seen their overdose deaths fall. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Pennsylvania saw a 44 percent increase in opioid-related deaths from 2015 to 2016, with 4,600 fatal overdoses in 2016. According to preliminary data cited by the governor, that number grew to 5,260 in 2017.

The emergency declaration puts Pennsylvania in line with other states that have announced similar measures including Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts and Virginia. In October, President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a national emergency, though faced criticism his order did not go far enough in responding to the crisis. 

Reactions to the declaration poured in from across the commonwealth.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro applauded the measure, calling opioid addiction "the number 1 public health and public safety crisis facing our Commonwealth."

Stating that the epidemic has "ripped apart far too many families," U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D) cited his $45 billion proposal for a federal response to the crisis, arguing "the federal government must do its part so that states don’t have to deal with this alone."

State Senator and Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner (R-York) released a statement applauding "Governor Wolf’s decision to finally get serious about the opioid epidemic that has plagued the Commonwealth for far too long."

Citing his membership in the York Regional Opiate Collaborative, Wagner urged the governor "to come to one of our meetings so we can share with him our methods and work together to tackle this public health emergency."

Pennsylvania's emergency declaration is the culmination of a ramp-up in new initiatives by the governor and the state legislature to help fight addiction and over-prescribing of opioid medications.

In August the state unveiled "warm handoff" guidelines meant to streamline the process for emergency departments to refer clients to substance abuse treatment centers. 

In November, the Department of Health launched PMP Aware, designed to help providers and pharmacies coordinate on the prescription of opioid painkillers to patients as well as identify patients possibly abusing them.

In December, the governor signed new guidelines for prescribing opioids to minors as well as new regulations for recovery houses, which had previously operated with little oversight. 

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Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter covers health care news for the Central Penn Business Journal. Email her at gbranstetter@cpbj.com.

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