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N.H. Heroin Task Force Makes Final Recommendations on Drug-Related Proposals

Casey McDermott, NHPR

 A special task force on heroin and opioid issues okay’ed plans to speed up the review of about 20 different proposals aimed at tackling the drug crisis, culminating nearly three weeks of meetings meant to size up the Legislature’s response before the regular session resumes in January.

The proposals reviewed by the task force were sorted into one of three main paths forward: “expedited,” “early,” and “regular.”

The “expedited” ones will be vetted at joint public hearing set for Jan. 5 with the goal of sending final legislation to Gov. Maggie Hassan’s desk by the end of the month. The “early” ones will go through separate hearings in the House and Senate, but lawmakers are still supposed to address them as soon as possible — and task force leaders said they could be finalized just several weeks behind the “expedited” legislation. The “regular” ones will follow the normal legislative process.

Over the last three weeks, the task force heard from some 76 people with varying ties to the heroin and opioid crisis: doctors, police officers, emergency responders, public health officials, recovery support professionals, insurers and more. Also included among those testifying were people with personal connections to addiction, who were either in recovery or who had lost a loved one to an overdose.

Rep. William Hinch, the task force’s vice chairman, said those stories were especially important in reminding lawmakers of the urgency around the task at hand.

“If anyone sitting in there today did not have a tear in their eye, something is wrong. The stories that we heard today and the stories that we heard over the past three weeks were just so compelling, and it brings the real world into it,” Hinch said. “People are dying, and we need to do something about it, and take all of the politics out of it.”

If other people have personal stories related to the opioid crisis that they’d like to share with officials, Hinch said he’d welcome their input at the public hearing scheduled for Jan. 5.

Some of the measures that were fast-tracked for the speediest review include proposals to:

  • bring penalties for distributing and manufacturing fentanyl in line with those for heroin
  • update the requirements around the state’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, and to allow the program to accept state funding to potentially be used for technology upgrades
  • make health insurers use standards from the American Society of Addiction Medicine “when determining medical necessity for care,” and to remove the need for prior authorization when someone goes for his or her first two outpatient visits for treatment of a substance misuse disorder
  • study issues related to Narcan in New Hampshire
  • mandate “age appropriate” drug and alcohol education in all public schools, for Kindergarten through 12th grade

Other measures that were approved for “early” review include proposals to:

  • set aside $130,000 in state funds for technology upgrades to the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program
  • expand drug courts across New Hampshire by setting up a matching grant program to help counties front the costs of the program, to be overseen by a new Office of the Drug Court Coordinator and a new advisory commission
  • require the state boards for doctors, nurses, dental examiners, optometrists, podiatrists, naturopaths and veterinarians to adopt new prescribing rules
  • set up a state grant program to support state and local law enforcement efforts around heroin and drug use

A full rundown of the task force’s recommendations can be found in this initial report prepared at the conclusion of Tuesday’s meeting.

Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, who chaired the task force, was optimistic that the task force's work helped to give the Legislature a solid foundation to address the issue when it returns for its full session.

Bradley said it will be important to see where the state's finances stand before voting on any big-ticket financial items — in total, he estimates the proposals add up to about $12 million — but he doesn't anticipate major resistance to the proposals as long as the money is there. None of the bills that require significant financial spending have been "expedited" at this time.

"I think this is a comprehensive  approach that focuses on law enforcement, it focuses on recovery and it focuses on treatment, and that's I think what we should be looking at," Bradley said.

Gov. Maggie Hassan, who initially called for the special session and asked lawmakers to consider a multi-part bill now instead of waiting until January, commended the members of the task force for their work over the past month. Still, she called for more work to be done moving forward.

"We must all continue working together to pass these bills as quickly as possible and take additional steps – including reauthorizing our bipartisan health care expansion program, the single most effective step we can take to increase treatment capacity – in order to continue building on our comprehensive approach to the most pressing public health and safety challenge facing our state," Hassan said in a statement.

Bradley and Hinch said questions about the fate of the state's Medicaid expansion, cited by Hassan and other Democrats as a major component of addressing the drug crisis, will be addressed separately from the work of the task force's recommendations.

"I think Medicaid expansion is a different — even though there may be some synergy — it's a different subject," Hinch said. "And we just stay focused on what our charge was for the task force, and then we have plenty of time to talk about Medicaid expansion as appropriate."

Casey McDermott is an editor and reporter at New Hampshire Public Radio, where she works with colleagues across the newsroom to deepen the station’s accountability coverage, data journalism and audience engagement across platforms.

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