Gov. Larry Hogan unveiled Tuesday what he called a "holistic" strategy to deal with Maryland's growing heroin problem, but stopped short of declaring the state of emergency he vowed last year to put in place.
After weeks of buildup, Hogan announced a four-pronged approach to one of the signature issues of his campaign. It involves no dramatic breaks from the policies followed by former Gov. Martin O'Malley. Hogan put much of the substantive policy development in the hands of a task force that will report to him by Dec. 1.
The program includes a $500,000 federal grant, but no new state money for treatment.
At a State House news conference, Hogan seemed to choke up several times as he described how pervasive he found the problem as he traveled around the state last year.
"This used to be considered an urban problem, but it's not anymore," he said. All over the state, he said, local officials told him heroin had become their No. 1 problem. The governor said he felt a personal connection because a cousin died of an overdose a couple of years ago.
"I know the kind of devastation it can cause for families and communities, but still I was shocked by how widespread this problem had become," he said.
Hogan said heroin was both a law enforcement problem and a health issue. "This is a disease, and we will not be able to just arrest our way out of that crisis," he said.
Some were unimpressed by the governor's plan.
"This is the biggest joke I've ever heard in my life," said Mike Gimbel, a former drug user who served as director of Baltimore County's substance abuse office. "We need long-term, residential drug-free treatment in the state of Maryland. We've never had it. There are people out there who need it immediately."
Del. Kirill Reznik, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the task force duplicates the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Council he has served on since it was created by O'Malley in 2007. Reznik said the council has already identified what the state needs — more treatment beds and more preventive education programs starting as early as elementary school.
"I'm not seeing anything that begins to really address this problem," he said. "The idea of another task force, I'm a little skeptical of it."
Others applauded Hogan's effort. Del. Brett Wilson, a Hagerstown Republican who was named to the task force, called the plan "exactly what we need."
"I like this approach about actually learning about a problem before we address it," he said.
Del. Peter A. Hammen, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House health committee, also welcomed the program . "I'm pleased the governor is focusing on the issue because it's a significant problem throughout the state."
Heroin overdoses have shot up 95 percent since 2010 as the drug's price has fallen and prescription painkillers have become more difficult to obtain. In 2013, Hogan said, Maryland had 464 overdose deaths, exceeding the state's 387 homicides. He said preliminary numbers show deaths by overdose continued to rise last year.
His four-point program includes two executive orders — one to create a coordinating council of the agencies involved in tackling the problem and the other setting up the task force. Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford will chair both groups.
The third point was Hogan's announcement of a donation of 5,000 EVZIO kits for the rapid treatment of heroin and other opiate overdoses by manufacturer Kaleo Pharmaceuticals. EVZIO is a delivery device similar to an epi-pen for the delivery of naloxone, a drug used to counter the effects of those substances in emergencies. Each kit has two doses, for a total of 10,000.
Hogan also announced a $500,000 federal grant to the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention that will be used to increase treatment programs in the state's jails and prisons.
After the announcements, Hogan signed the executive orders and left without taking questions. He turned over the news conference to Rutherford, whom he had previously named his point man on the state's response to the heroin epidemic.
Rutherford, asked why Hogan had decided not to declare the "state of emergency" he had talked about during the campaign, said the administration found there is no statutory basis for such a declaration.
"We still consider it an emergency," Rutherford said. "It really doesn't fit from a legal standpoint."
During his campaign, Hogan criticized the administration of O'Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown for leaving Maryland as the only state on the East Coast that hadn't declared a heroin emergency — a claim that was later debunked. The Republican candidate repeatedly charged that the Democratic administration did little to address the heroin epidemic.
Hogan's plan so far is similar to O'Malley initiatives.
Hogan's coordinating council will consist of the departments of Health and Mental Hygiene, Public Safety and Correctional Services, Juvenile Services and Education, as well as the Maryland State Police and other agencies. The membership largely overlaps that of a group O'Malley formed last June to address the overdose treatment problem.
The new administration's work in securing the donation of naloxone doses builds on Maryland's efforts in recent years to put the drug in the hands of more first responders, to expand training on its use and to make the drug eligible for Medicaid coverage.
Like O'Malley, Hogan is facing criticism from advocates for cutting the budget for providers of drug treatment.
Dan Martin, public policy director of the Mental Health Association, said the things Hogan announced Tuesday are "important and necessary."
But Martin and his group will be part of a rally Wednesday outside the State House calling for the restoration of $23 million cut by the O'Malley and Hogan administrations from programs that include drug treatment.
"What we really need is to restore the budget for behavioral health so that people with substance abuse and mental health issue can get the treatment they need," Martin said.