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Drug Czar Pledges to Reach Out in Effort to Fight Addiction

Josh Rogers
John Wozmak prepares to share his plan for battling New Hampshire's drug problem with the Executive Council yesterday.

Jack Wozmak, Gov. Maggie Hassan's pick to spearhead the state's fight against opioid abuse, has been on the job since early February, but this week has amounted to his coming out.  It hasn’t been all – or even mostly -- smooth. 

  Republicans have accused Wozmak and the governor of failing to lead in the fight against heroin. And officials in Manchester have said he’s ignored their city, where narcotic use is rampant. So it's perhaps not surprising that in his first visit to the Executive Council this week, ostensibly to discuss a new 22-point drug plan, Wozmak went out of his way to allay concerns.

That New Hampshire’s approach to fighting heroin has become a political fight was clear by the very fact that Wozmak was at the Executive Council breakfast at 8 am in the remote town of Cornish -- and every statewide media outlet was there to cover it. Wozmak, a former administrator of Cheshire County, didn't always seem at ease, but he did what he could to show he understands that a big part of his job is reaching out.

"We did meet with the mayor of Manchester earlier this week, to try to improve that communication," he told councilors. "Obviously, Manchester is a big player in the scope of the problem and the efforts they are addressing upon it. And so I will be working very closely with them."

Wozmak also told the Council there specific things the state needs to do to battle heroin use. Some included proposals Gov. Hasssan has pushed for, like securing more drug treatment options via Medicaid. That includes offering treatment to traditional recipients, as well as reauthorizing Medicaid expansion under Obamacare.  Other ideas were newer, like making sure that drug "take back" boxes are in every pharmacy, and that doctors use standardized  prescribing practices. Wozmak also said that pain clinics need stricter regulation, and that drug courts should be set up in every county.

“In fact, I think the paradigm needs to shift, so that the only reason that we would send somebody to jail, or prison, is because they don’ t have a substance abuse problem," Wozmak said.

Councilors, even those who have criticized the governor’s approach to drugs, like Republican Chris Sununu, seemed to welcome the policy suggestions.

For Hassan, though, a main prong remains Medicaid expansion. Hassan brought it up multiple times during Wozmak’s nearly hour-long meeting with the Council. And when councilors asked what they could do to help fight drugs she asked them to do some lobbying..

"So if you all want to be helpful, reaching out to legislators, finding a way that we could deal with Medicaid expansion," she told councilors.

That might be a tough sell for the GOP-controlled council, let alone the GOP-controlled Legislature. Republican leaders in the House oppose expanding Medicaid, and  leaders in the Senate say they want to take up the issue next year.  During a break in the Council action yesterday, the governor was quick to tell reporters the heroin crisis is a compelling reason not to wait.

"Right now, the single most important thing to do that will have the biggest bang for the buck requires the reauthorization of Medicaid expansion," Hassan said.

And a new UNH poll may help her make that argument.  The survey released this week found heroin to be New Hampshire’s second-most pressing problem.

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