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Maryland Gov. Hogan asks Congress to 'step up' on opioid funding

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan told a Senate committee Thursday that the federal government needs to increase funding and tighten international shipping requirements to help stem the opioid epidemic sweeping the nation.

Testifying before Congress for the first time, the Republican governor made an impassioned plea for additional funding — arguing in written testimony that the money included in a sweeping federal health bill approved in 2016 was “clearly not enough” to address the problem.

Speaking to the broader issue of the over-prescription of opiates, Hogan revealed that during his recovery from cancer three different doctors offered to write him a 30-day prescription for opioid painkillers within a few weeks.

“I urge you and your colleagues to make increased funding for the opioid crisis a top priority,” Hogan told members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee during a nearly two-hour hearing. “We simply can’t stop it without the federal government stepping up.”

The call for additional spending represents a break from some fellow Republicans who have noted that Congress approved legislation in 2016 — the 21st Century Cures Act — that set aside about $1 billion in new treatment money for states. When President Donald J. Trump declared the opioid crisis a national health emergency last fall, the White House did not recommend more funding.

The state received $20 million in new money under the federal law.

Hogan, who was joined at the hearing by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, also called on Congress to pass a bipartisan bill to require more sophisticated customs data on international shipments handled by the U.S. Postal Service. Requiring advanced customs data, supporters say, would help authorities identify packages containing drugs, including synthetic compounds like fentanyl.

“The majority of this deadly fentanyl is being shipped from China or is being smuggled across the border from Mexico,” Hogan said.

Maryland has been hit hard by the opioid crisis and was wrestling with heroin overdoses in Baltimore years before prescription painkiller abuse became a problem in rural and suburban regions. There were 1,501 opioid-related deaths in Maryland from January to September last year, including 1,173 deaths tied to fentanyl, according to the Maryland Department of Health. Fentanyl also was present in two-thirds of fatal cocaine overdoses.

Throughout his testimony, Hogan described the problem as the “heroin and opioid crisis,” underscoring that the issue is broader than heroin or prescription opioids alone. Many people who become addicted to painkillers switch to heroin, which can be cheaper and easier to find.

“We need to think about it as a process that needs to be tailored to a person’s unique circumstances and environment,” Brown said. “We need to let people know that it’s okay to come out of the shadows — that it’s okay to ask for help.”

The hearing was ostensibly scheduled so federal lawmakers could hear from the governors about programs that had worked in their states, but both Hogan and Brown pressed the lawmakers on the need for federal action. Congress may include opioid funding as part of a government spending bill expected later this month.

“There are many good pieces of legislation in the House and Senate that should be passed,” Hogan said.

Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican, pressed both governors on whether their prescription drug monitoring programs shared information with law enforcement. Though Maryland’s program may share that information, some state lawmakers want to require the program to analyze the database for potential violations by doctors and pharmacies.

“I think we’ve got to be careful about the sharing of information,” Hogan said. “We want to protect the folks that actually have drug addictions, and not treat them just as law enforcement cases.”

“If I may,” Cassidy interrupted, “the way I see this is not so much that you would track folks down who are addicts but rather that you would track down pill mill doctors and pharmacies that are overprescribing.”

“We are doing exactly that,” Hogan said. “We’re shutting down pill mills all across the state.”

Cassidy also questioned how the governors judged the success of various treatment programs receiving state and federal funding. He accused some treatment providers of “combing jails, finding people on Medicaid” and then providing a substandard level of care that led to relapse.

Though Hogan did not get a chance to respond to that question, Maryland officials said a law passed by the General Assembly in 2016 requires the Maryland Department of Health to credential residential treatment centers. The state also monitors the centers’ performance and investigates allegations of fraud and abuse.

Hogan declared a state of emergency over the opioid crisis about a year ago, and he pledged to spend $50 million over five years on the issue. His administration created an Opioid Operational Command Center that coordinates the state’s response with local jurisdictions.

“As this crisis evolves and grows, so must our response to it,” Hogan said. “This crisis is more than just a health crisis; it is tearing apart families and communities from one end of the nation to the other.”

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

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