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Pennsylvania lawmakers allow opioid emergency to lapse

August 25, 2021 GMT

Pennsylvania’s opioid disaster declaration is set to expire at the end of Wednesday after state lawmakers, newly empowered to help manage statewide emergencies, declined the governor’s request for another extension.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf first declared a public health emergency in January 2018 after Pennsylvania set a record for opioid deaths, then renewed it more than a dozen times as the state battled an overdose epidemic that has worsened during the coronavirus pandemic.

Wolf had to seek legislative approval for another extension because of a newly approved constitutional amendment limiting a governor’s emergency powers. But the GOP-led General Assembly declined to go along.

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“Our fight is not over,” Wolf said in a written statement. “We have an obligation to support individuals desperately in need of substance use disorder services and supports. With or without a disaster declaration, this will remain a top priority of my administration.”

The disaster declaration made it easier for people to get treatment, expanded the state’s prescription drug monitoring program and established an inter-agency opioid “command center” to coordinate the state’s efforts, among other things.

State officials cited progress, with opioid prescribing down by more than 40% and overdose deaths falling by nearly 20% after a record 5,403 people statewide died in 2017.

But overdose deaths have climbed again during the pandemic. More than 5,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2020, according the Wolf administration.

“Unfortunately, the isolation and disruption caused by the pandemic over the past year and half has also caused a heartbreaking increase in substance use disorder and overdose deaths,” Wolf said.

State lawmakers rejected the governors’ request to renew the opioid disaster declaration beyond Wednesday, saying earlier this month that it was no longer necessary since many of its benefits have been accomplished through legislation, executive action and other means.

But GOP leaders in the House and Senate acknowledged the opioid crisis persists, promising it would be a “top legislative priority” in the fall.

“Far too many Pennsylvania families have felt the impact of this crisis personally and permanently, and this epidemic has not gone away and has only gotten worse during the COVID-19 pandemic,” House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, said in announcing that lawmakers would not extend the disaster declaration.

Wolf had been able to act unilaterally until now. But voters curtailed a governor’s emergency powers after Wolf tangled with conservatives and business owners over his COVID-19 restrictions, giving the General Assembly more control over the length of a disaster declaration and the management of it.

One practical implication of the end of the disaster declaration is that the Pennsylvania Insurance Department and the state Department of Labor & Industry will no longer have access to data from the state’s prescription drug monitoring program. The Insurance Department, for example, had monitored opioid prescriptions among claimants in a pair of state programs, Wolf told lawmakers.