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Frank Guinta Talks Opioid Legislation, Responds To Calls For Resignation

Jason Meserve, NHPR

An NHPR interview with Congressman Frank Guinta.

With the state’s heroin and opiate addiction epidemic showing no signs of waning, lawmakers are looking for ways to fight the use of drugs and stem the tide of overdoses. Republican Congressman Frank Guinta, along with Democrat Annie Kuster, introduced the STOP ABUSE Act earlier this month. It spells out several steps that local governments, law enforcement agencies, and medical professionals can take to prevent overdoses from taking more lives. Congressman Guinta spoke with NHPR's Peter Biello. 

The bill sets up a few methods of fighting the opioid epidemic, and one of these is the establishment of an inter-agency taskforce on heroin addiction. What is that, and what will it do?

Well, first of all the inter-agency task forces on a federal level bring a whole boast host of federal experts to the table to identify what are going to be the best practices to address the heroin and opioid issues. Why is that important? Because federal lawmakers need to understand and appreciate the severity of this issue, not just here in New Hampshire, but across the country— number one. Number two, we then need to be able to appropriate the dollars that we have for the best way to address the opiate and heroin addiction issue here in New Hampshire and across the country. Some of those dollars that we’re using now, we’re not using in the most effective way.

Is part of this going to be the federal government deciding how doctors should prescribe opioids and how they should administer things like Narcan?

Well, not necessarily. There is some federal oversight there, but there’s going to be a lot of state oversight and decision making. What I want to accomplish with the STOP ABUSE Act relative to the task force is to make sure that congress has the appropriate factual information, so when we appropriate dollars, we can make the proper argument as to why dollars within both health and law enforcement need to be appropriated toward fixing the opiate and heroin addiction problem.

The bill also authorizes drug crisis grants, $5 million every year from 2016 to 2020. Who would be eligible for these grants?

I’m encouraging local communities as well as the non-profit organizations to apply for these grants. This is part of making sure that we appropriate federal dollars in the most effective and helpful way. For example, earlier this year I was able to get an additional $5 million for drug or recovery courts as well, something we need desperately here in New Hampshire in certain pockets of the state. So, were trying to use the existing federal dollars that we have in the most effective and appropriate way to attack the issue.

The bill also grants some level of immunity to civil lawsuits to people who administer overdose reversal drugs like Narcan. What prompted this part of the bill?

Well, there’s been a discussion here in New Hampshire about, if someone is overdosing and then calls the police, are they going to be in legal liability? (Will there be)  legal trouble or liability issues for the individual that requires either fire assistance, police assistance, or medical assistance. Then, number one, we want to make sure that if somebody is in crisis that there’s no detriment to call a first responder. We want to be able to save that life. And then I’m hoping that with the recovery court money we can then get those individuals into a treatment program that’s long-term and sustainable, so rather than go to jail, these individuals have an opportunity to get healthy and to be productive citizens again. We’ve seen this work in the mental health arena, and I think we desperately need it in the heroin and opioid arena.

Some may say that this legislation does a lot after drugs like heroin are here in New Hampshire, but what can be done to stop the flow of drugs into the New Hampshire in the first place?

Sure, so that’s a very important question, because there are two areas that we’ve got to focus on. That’s where the law enforcement component comes into effect. And we know through my discussions with the DEA and FBI that a lot of these drugs are flowing into the country through the southern border, and then they come across the country into Lowell and Lawrence, and then they shoot up Interstate 93 into Manchester, and then it goes into northern New England from there. So, we’ve got to be able to identify the proper tools and funds within law enforcement to stop this at the border.

Secondly, we need, in my view, a regional crime commission, where you have states that are talking to one another in real time and have an ability to, if something is happening in Lowell or Lawrence, we have an ability to stop it there before it comes up to Manchester. But that’s going to require not just inter-agency cooperation, but regional cooperation, something that we have more of it today than we had ten years ago, but that has got to be improved. And then there’s also the prevention on the treatment side. And we’ve got to educate people about the problems associated with heroin, how easily and quickly you can get addicted.

We’ve have to deal with the prescription management problem, I consistently hear that individuals who have some sort of medical ailment will get a prescription from their doctor, not for two three four five days of pain, but for months of pain. And that’s a concern of mine as well, because people are getting addicted to the opiate and then when the opiate prescription runs out, then you go to heroin. So, there are two areas, both the medical side as well as the law enforcement side.

Congressman Guinta, we learned this week that you will be facing a primary challenge from Dan Innis, the candidate you narrowly beat in the 2014 primary. Given what has transpired this year with the Federal Elections Commission and your party’s calls for you to resign, how do you intend to face Innis or any primary challenger?

Yeah, the political always tends to take care of itself. Politics can be a tough business when it comes to campaigning. Yeah, I think people really want me to focus on are things like the heroin epidemic, focusing on representing New Hampshire in a way that’s reflective of the views and values of New Hampshire— that’s what I’m focusing on. The politics I don’t worry about, that always takes care of itself, and when the time comes, we can have that conversation.

Of course, but how much support do you think you can gain from a party whose most prominent members have called for your resignation?

Well look, I can’t speak to what those people are thinking. The reality is that the people elected me and that’s who I represent, and that’s what I’ll continue to focus on doing. But, besides those individuals, this issue is resolved, it’s in the past. It was done in order to try to move forward and resolve a contentious political issue, that’s what I’ve done. And if people want to rehash it yet again, and think that’s a good political decision to make and a good strategy, then that’s up to them and their campaign people.

But I again focus on, in my terms, what people want me to focus on: saving lives, because heroin is a problem, dealing with the EPA putting our fishing industry out of business, as well as federal agencies. Dealing with the EPA when they are placing overburdened regulations on our communities’ contiguous to Great Bay, working families who are having problems finding a job and getting back to work— those are the things that I think people really want me to focus on, and I hear that through the course of my visits back to New Hampshire on a regular basis, and that’s where I intend to focus.

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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