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Walker calls for special session to consider opioid bills

Monday, January 9, 2017  
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January 6, Wisconsin Health News

Gov. Scott Walker called for a special session of the Legislature Thursday to consider 11 bills that aim to combat the heroin and opioid epidemic.

The bills are based on recommendations from a task force that Walker convened last year, chaired by Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette.

The task force released an interim report Thursday. Even though it hasn't finished its work, the opioid and heroin epidemic are "such a crisis to deal with, we need to start acting now," Walker said.

"We need to tackle this issue head on," Walker told attendees of a Wisconsin Bankers Association event in Madison Thursday. "Not because it's a quality of life, not because it's a public health issue, but because it's a key part of our workforce."

Among the proposals the Legislature will consider are bills that would in the 2017-'19 biennium provide $2 million to support new medically assisted treatment centers, $1 million for consultation services helping medical professionals connect with addiction medicine specialists and $126,000 to the rural hospital graduate training program.

Another bill would provide money to the Department of Justice to fund criminal investigation agents focused on drug trafficking. And another would expand the Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment training program offered by the Department of Public Instruction.

"All of us know someone personally affected by a heroin overdose or drug death," Kleefisch said in a statement. "Together, we're going to continue this initiative as we look for new ideas and evaluate the impact of the policies we've adopted the past several years."

An additional proposal would allow school personnel that can administer life-saving drugs like EpiPens to use the anti-overdose drug Naloxone. And two more would require schedule V substances that contain codeine like some cough syrups by dispensed with a prescription and extend limited immunity from prosecution to overdose victims.

Other bills include permitting the University of Wisconsin System to open a recovery school for students who need in-patient care and allowing relatives to commit a drug-addicted family member in the same way as is currently allowed for alcoholism.

Walker's order doesn't include all the recommendations made in the report, such as providing $2 million over the next biennium for Wisconsin hospitals to hire in-house recovery coaches. His spokesman said the bills are in the final stages of draft form and will be released when introduced.

Another order signed by Walker Thursday directs state agencies to pursue a number of different initiatives to curb opioid abuse, including having the Office of the Commissioner of Insurance conduct a survey of opioid addiction treatment coverage for major insurers in Wisconsin. 

"The recommendations included in this report are not the silver bullet," said Nygren, who's authored 17 laws fighting drug abuse though his Heroin, Opioid Prevention and Education Agenda. "I look forward to continuing the fight."  

Wisconsin Hospital Association CEO Eric Borgerding noted that the interim report includes recommendations they suggested, like providing investments in fellowship training for addiction medicine and streamlining regulations for healthcare providers that are trying to expand access to substance abuse treatment.

Wisconsin Medical Society Chief Medical Officer Dr. Donn Dexter called the package of bills "ambitious, which is exactly what dealing with this crisis demands." The Pharmacy Society of Wisconsin said the proposals aim to increase access to treatments and prevent new addictions.

"We're especially excited about the investments to increase the number of providers available and in telemedicine," Bernie Sherry, senior vice president and Ministry market executive for Ascension Wisconsin, said in a statement. "This is a good day for Wisconsin." 

Myranda Tanck, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said they'll likely maintain their current session calendar for when the full body meets. 

Kit Beyer, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said they hope to have the bills ready for committee hearings by the end of the month.

Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said the urgency of the special session is warranted.  

"The opioid epidemic in our state is a very serious issue that requires a very aggressive response," Barca said in a statement. "I hope the committees will collect input from those who know this issue firsthand -from law enforcement, to educators, to medical professionals - as this will help us address this crisis in the most comprehensive manner possible."

Walker also signed an order directing the Department of Health Services to apply for funding available through the 21st Century Cures Act, which was approved by the federal government last year. The act makes $7.6 million per year available for two years to Wisconsin. His order directs the department to apply for the grants by Feb. 17.   

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis, said she helped lead the effort in Congress to include $1 billion in the act for the opioid epidemic. 

"The opioid epidemic is not a partisan issue, and a strong partnership between the federal government and our state is essential to an effective response," she said in a statement. "This is a significant step forward for communities fighting the opioid epidemic across Wisconsin."