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Lawmakers hunker down to combat opioid epidemic

Gov. Doug Ducey convenes a special session on the opioid crisis on Jan. 22. (From left) Senate President Steve Yarbrough, Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs, House Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, House Speaker J.D. Mesnard and a litany of other lawmakers and supporters joined the governor to advocate for various changes in law related to opioids. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Gov. Doug Ducey convenes a special session on the opioid crisis on Jan. 22. (From left) Senate President Steve Yarbrough, Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs, House Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, House Speaker J.D. Mesnard and a litany of other lawmakers and supporters joined the governor to advocate for various changes in law related to opioids. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

State lawmakers begin working today on a bipartisan plan that state officials hope will make a significant dent in opioid addiction, abuse and deaths in Arizona.

“In 2016, more than two Arizonans died each day due to an opioid overdose,” Dr. Cara Christ, the state’s health director, said at a ceremony where Gov. Doug Ducey signed a proclamation for a special legislative session to confront the issue.

“Since 2012, we’ve seen an increase of 74 percent in opiod-related deaths,” she continued. “Drug overdoses kill more Arizonans than car accidents.”

The proposal contains money designed to help provide treatment for those who are addicted. The state already does some of that through its Medicaid program. This package contains $10 million for those whose income leaves them unqualified for that.

But the governor said the measure also has a strong element designed to prevent addiction in the first place. That’s built around a five-day limit on how much opioids doctors can prescribe to patients who have not been on the drug for at least 60 days.

The governor said his plan takes advantage of data in understanding how addiction occurs.

“When it goes past five days or six days, that’s when the incidence of addiction skyrocket,” he said. “So the objective here is not only to treat people that are suffering addiction so that they can get off it, but to prevent future addictions and overdoses from happening.”

But he said the legislation should not harm others.

“People that have chronic pain, people that are suffering from chronic pain and are already benefitting from these miracle drugs, there will be no change for them,” he said.

The governor called the measure “the most aggressive piece of public policy, the most thorough and thoughtful piece of public policy that’s been introduced in years.”

Legislative Democrats are willing to go along, especially once they got that $10 million for addiction treatment. But they don’t see this as a cure all.

“It’s a thoughtful and thorough first step,” said Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs. “We won’t win this battle in one year.”

State lawmakers actually already are in session. And there is no legal reason why the pieces of the proposal cannot be added to the regular legislative agenda.

But by calling a concurrent special session, Ducey sets the stage to go from proposal to finished law in three days.

“This is not being rushed through at all,” the governor told reporters after the ceremony. He said the measure has been in the works since September, with input from members of the medical community, law enforcement, and addiction experts.

“We needed urgency and focus on this issue, which is a crisis in our state. It called for a special session,” he said.

But what it also does is shorten the amount of time for people to read and scrutinize the final legislation – it was still not printed as of Monday afternoon – and be able to seek changes.

There are some potential flash points.

For example, the proclamation for the session says there will be new enforcement procedures to go after doctors who overprescribe not just opioids but other similar drugs. That could raise questions from doctors who specialize in pain management.

Ducey also wants to allow the state to charge companies that manufacture opioid and their executives with felonies for misrepresenting the effectiveness and addictive nature of their drugs.

And the governor proposes to require insurance companies to expedite authorization for certain kinds of treatments. That is based on concerns that while patients are awaiting the go-ahead from insurers for surgery, they end up being given opioids for the pain, increasing the possibility of addiction.

Other provisions include a “Good Samaritan” provision, allowing someone who is using drugs to call for help when a companion needs medical attention without putting himself or herself at risk of arrest.

The governor did part ways with his health director on one particular issue.

In briefing reporters last week, Christ said there is no simple answer to alternatives to highly addictive opioids when treating pain. But she said the list of options could include medical marijuana, which is legal in Arizona.

“I think that’s something that the doctor and the patient need to decide that’s right for them,” she said at the time.

Ducey dismissed the idea.

“I’ve seen no evidence of that at all,” the governor said.

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