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Wolf On Opioid Crisis: 'Too Many Futures Robbed'

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Gov. Tom Wolf
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Flickr
Gov. Tom Wolf spoke to WESA's Paul Guggenheimer about the ongoing opioid crisis.

A total of 3,383 drug-related overdose deaths were reported in Pennsylvania in 2015. That’s nearly 25 per cent more than the number of deaths in 2014. Governor Tom Wolf has called it a crisis and made dealing with it a priority. The governor spoke with 90.5 WESA’s Paul Guggenheimer about initiatives he and the legislature are working on in the handful of voting days that remain.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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PAUL GUGGENHEIMER: Governor Wolf, you have addressed a joint session of the legislature on the opioid crisis. Why a joint session instead of a special session? Rep. Aaron Kaufer, for example, one of the co-chairs of the new PA Heroin, Opioid Prevention and Education Caucus, characterized your address as a public relations gesture.

GOVERNOR TOM WOLF: The special session, I think, was one of the original ideas but with the number of session days left, the joint session actually is more practical. The problem with a special session is that every bill that is introduced starts from scratch and has to end during that special session. And there probably aren’t enough days to do all the work we could do if we simply said let’s do a joint session. And there are already bills in the hopper, there are already making progress through the House and Senate. Let’s build on what we already have going and we can get some good things done before this session ends later in the fall.

GUGGENHEIMER: With only a handful of voting days remaining, what action can be taken between now and the November election?

WOLF: We want to improve the prescription drug monitoring program. There are bills in the hopper that will do things like make sure pharmacists enter date into the database within 24 hours. The current law is 72 hours. The current law requires doctors to check the system the first time only that they prescribe a patient. We think they should check the Commonwealth’s PDMP each time they prescribe opioids. We want to do a better job of helping medical schools and deans of medical schools that I’ve talked to really want to improve their curricula to make sure the doctors that are getting degrees from these medical schools know a little more about opioids and what the impact is of prescribing them or know what to look for when someone else is prescribing them. Third there are bills already in the hopper to limit the amount of opioids a patient can receive in emergency rooms. The one bill says let’s keep it to seven and then no refills. If you want to get more opioids you have to go to a doctor and have that prescription refilled. And if you’re a minor, there ought to be restrictions any time anybody prescribes opioids to a minor. There are too many stories of high school athletes whose futures have been robbed by addiction to prescription drugs.      

GUGGENHEIMER:  The measure that you mentioned that would bar emergency doctors from prescribing more than seven days worth of opioids, this has been a controversial measure. The Pennsylvania Medical Society has spoken against the bill saying that details of the ever changing practice of medicine should not be governed by hard and fast laws. What about these objections?

WOLF:  And I share the objection that the government should not intrude on the decisions of medical providers. The point here is that when you go to the emergency room you’re not going to a specialist. You are going in because you have an emergency situation. And an emergency doctor should, in certain cases, if in that doctor’s sole estimation the patient should be prescribed an opioid, let’s keep that to seven days so that patient within seven days should go to another doctor who is looking at the particular, specific, individualized regime of care. And make sure that patient needs more opioids or something else. It’s not to take this away from the medical profession. It’s to say in the emergency room setting that’s not the appropriate place to make a life changing prescription that is made simply because of the emergency situation that emergency room physician is facing.