Gov. Wolf issues statewide disaster declaration for the opioid crisis

Author: Jason Gottesman/Wednesday, January 10, 2018/Categories: News and Views, Video

Gov. Tom Wolf announced Wednesday he is issuing a statewide disaster declaration for the opioid crisis.


The declaration puts into action a 90 day state constitutionally-limited period where additional state resources can be coordinated and regulations waived en masse in order to jump start an offense against the heroin and opioid epidemic.


“Officially, I am declaring this epidemic a statewide disaster emergency,” Gov. Wolf said. “I don’t take this action lightly. We know that this crisis has taken far too many lives, it’s broken far too many families, it has decimated far too many communities, and it has gone on far too long.”


Currently, despite past efforts of the Wolf administration and bipartisan support from the General Assembly, Pennsylvania has the fourth highest overdose rate in the country losing over 4,600 Pennsylvanians in 2016 as a result of overdose deaths with that number increasing in 2017’s initial tallies.


“Those that we lost are not just numbers: they are mothers, they are fathers, sons, daughters, family members, neighbors, all of them contributing members of our society,” Gov. Wolf added. “There are people whose parents and grandparents I have sat with and heard how devastating their disease is for all of us.”


Efforts underneath the disaster declaration will be coordinated by the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) and create an inter-agency approach to combatting the heroin and opioid epidemic beyond what is currently allowed by law.


Joining Gov. Wolf Wednesday was PEMA director Rick Flinn, Acting Secretary of the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP) Jennifer Smith, and Acting Secretary of the Department of Health Dr. Rachel Levine.


Both Sec. Smith and Sec. Levine noted their departments will be directly affected by the disaster declaration, allowing for a greater availability of resources and common sense response unhindered by regulatory hurdles.


For DDAP, the disaster declaration will allow the department to waive regulations that require face to face physician evaluations prior to intake to a treatment facility and waive annual licensing requirements for high achieving treatment facilities while also expanding access to medically assisted treatment.


Within the Department of Health, the disaster declaration would do things like expand the already existing standing order for Naloxone so it can be left behind by EMS operators responding to overdose calls, allow the rescheduling of Fentanyl derivatives to Schedule I, and expand the use of the prescription drug monitoring program for cross-agency use.


Despite the short window, cabinet officials said Wednesday that plans are already underway for what will happen when the disaster declaration expires.


“Part of the discussion when we were coming up with the list of potential regulations we would be waiving is: the next question is what happens after the 90 days,” said Sec. Smith. “For each of the regulations we considered, we also have a longer plan.”


The governor’s action was met with praise from across the aisle, both inside and out of the Capitol.


Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney applauded the governor’s announcement.


"I commend Gov. Wolf for taking this bold step. His announcement makes clear that this epidemic threatens the commonwealth as much as any natural disaster. The crisis is particularly acute in Philadelphia: when the final tally is complete, the number of fatal drug overdoses in the city last year may reach 1,200 – a one-third increase over 2016," he said in a statement.


"I look forward to working with the governor in the coming weeks and months, along with our partners in the state legislature, to mobilize the resources and additional tools needed to address the scourge of opioids. We cannot afford to wait."


Attorney General Josh Shapiro also praised the announcement.


"Governor Wolf’s statewide disaster declaration on the heroin and opioid epidemic is an important step for Pennsylvanians as we confront the number one public health and public safety crisis facing our Commonwealth," he said.


"[A]s we continue losing more Pennsylvanians to overdoses, it’s clear we must do more. Governor Wolf’s disaster declaration will enable state agencies to waive regulations, lowering barriers to treatment. It will create a coordinated response within PEMA to allow agencies to take a more unified approach to the epidemic."


In the legislature, House Minority Leader Frank Dermody said the governor’s announcement plays well into a legislative agenda his caucus will be pushing in the coming months.


"The House Democratic Caucus pledges to continue those efforts and do even more to combat this public health emergency and reduce its devastation on our state," he said.


"In 2018, House Democrats want to focus on a Plan for PA that grows our economy with good jobs, quality schools and policies that put people first. We can't build a strong Pennsylvania if we don't have a foundation of healthy individuals, families and communities. Governor Wolf has been a strong leader in fighting the heroin, fentanyl and opioid crisis that threatens our state."


On the other side of the aisle, House Health Committee Majority Chairman Matt Baker (R-Tioga) and House Health and Human Services Majority Chairman Gene DiGirolamo (R-Bucks) praised the governor's actions, but noted more needs to be done in the legislature.


“The opioid crisis has become a leading health concern in Pennsylvania and across the entire country. Both of our committees have dedicated significant time and resources to find workable legislative solutions that will help curb this growing crisis. We are encouraged the governor agrees with us about the seriousness of this issue and that he is committed to taking further action and dedicating further state resources to address opioid addiction," they said in a joint statement.


“The governor has outlined some positive steps the administration can take to help address the opioid problem, but there is still more to do and we, in the legislature, have many ideas of our own that we are excited to share and move through our committees this year."