Maryland Democrats announce pair of bills to battle heroin crisis

Some three-dozen Democratic members of the General Assembly gathered Friday to announce a pair of bills they think could help battle the rising rate of heroin overdose deaths across Maryland.

The bills, which form part of a broader package of legislation, focus on educating people about the dangers of heroin and other opioids and expanding access to treatment for addicts.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said heroin overdoses are a serious crisis for Maryland that lawmakers had not so far done enough to address.

"To be honest we haven't really done well," he said.

Heroin and other opioid overdoses killed an estimated 2,000 people in Maryland last year, a significant increase from 2015. The issue has received renewed attention since the election of Gov. Larry Hogan, who campaigned on the issue, but officials have struggled to bring the problem under control.

The American Medical Association — which represents the nation's doctors — applauded lawmakers, calling their legislative effort among the most comprehensive in the country.

But paying for the wish list of initiatives laid out by Democrats could be a problem. The cost of the legislation has yet to be determined by the state's independent budget analysts and one of the leading lawmakers on the issue acknowledged that funding could be a barrier.

The first bill, called Start Talking Maryland, would require drug education programs to talk about the lethality of the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl and would order colleges that teach medical providers to offer classes on drug addiction treatment. The bill would instruct the governor to provide $3 million to pay for the efforts in his 2019 budget.

The second bill, called the Heroin and Opioid Prevention Effort — that is, HOPE — would call on the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to establish 10 heroin crisis centers around the state and to set up a special crisis hotline that could begin treatment over the phone.

It also would aim to expand access to medications, telling hospitals to have someone on staff who can prescribe buprenorphine — an addiction treatment medicine — and would lift a requirement that people be trained before getting a supply of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone. It also would tell the governor to provide $2 million to expand drug courts.

That bill also adopts language from legislation that has already passed the state Senate that would raise payments rates for drug addiction treatment in line with inflation for three years.

Some details of the legislation have yet to be finalized, but they have strong backing from the leadership in both chambers, meaning they should have little trouble passing in time to be sent to Hogan before the end of the session on April 10.

The Republican governor said at a news conference Friday that he was unfamiliar with the details of the bills but was glad to see the General Assembly taking action. The governor noted that he had just included an additional $10 million in spending on opioid programs in a supplemental budget.

"I'm glad to hear that the speaker and the Senate president are finally interested in this issue," he said.

A few hours later, an annoyed Miller reacted to Hogan's gibe, asserting that it is the General Assembly that is the state's policy-making body.

"The legislature needs to be recognized for the good job it does — Democrats and Republicans," Miller said. The Senate president said Hogan had just allocated $10 million in his budget to fight the opioid problem but "didn't say where it was going."

A spokesman for Hogan said some of the additional money could be used to help pay for measures in the Democrats' bills.

Baltimore Sun Reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

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