By Todd Richmond
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Heroin users who overdose would be granted legal immunity and schools could administer overdose antidotes under a package of anti-opioid bills Gov. Scott Walker called on the Legislature to pass Thursday.
The Republican governor issued an executive order calling lawmakers into special session to pass the package, which includes more than a half-dozen bills designed to curb heroin and opioid abuse. The Legislature’s regular two-year session began Tuesday. A special session operates under different rules that streamline bills’ passage; governors typically call such sessions to draw attention to specific issues and create momentum for passage.
“This is a public health crisis, and that’s why I’m calling a special session of the Legislature and directing state agencies to ramp up the state’s response,” Walker said in a news release.
He told the Wisconsin Bankers Association in a speech Thursday that part of the legislation’s goal is help addicts get clean so they can get back in the workforce or stop causing problems at their jobs.
A task force Walker formed to study opioid abuse released a report Thursday in conjunction with the special session order that found opioid-related overdose deaths more than tripled in Wisconsin from 194 in 2003 to 622 in 2014. Prescription opioid pain relievers such as oxycodone contributed to about half of those deaths, the report found.
The legislative package is based on recommendations in the report. The bills would:
—Grant limited legal immunity to opioid users who overdose. State law already extends immunity for people who report other people’s overdoses, but the report said too many overdoses go without an emergency response because people don’t want to get the person overdosing arrested.
—Allow school nurses to administer overdose antidotes such as Narcan to students.
—Make drugs such as cough syrup that contain the opioid codeine available only through a prescription.
—Allow relatives to place drug addicts in civil commitment.
—Require the University of Wisconsin System to start a school where high school addicts can continue their education during recovery.
—Allocate hundreds of thousands of additional dollars annually to support rural hospital graduate medical training programs and treatment centers; create a consultation service that could connect doctors with addiction specialists; hire four more state drug agents; and expand a state Department of Public Instruction program in which schools screen students for drug addictions and refer them to treatment.
Republican leaders in the Senate and the Assembly said the bills will follow the same process as any other legislation, with formal introductions and committee hearings. The process could take weeks, they said.
Walker has signed more than 15 bills addressing opioid abuse since 2013. Dubbed the HOPE agenda, the measures were championed by state Rep. John Nygren, a Marinette Republican whose daughter has struggled with a heroin addiction. He co-chaired the task force along with Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch. Asked whether more legislation was needed because the HOPE agenda has failed, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said abuse is a larger and more serious problem than anyone realizes.
“It’s a problem that affects an awful lot of our family, our friends, our neighbors, the people we go to church with, all across the state,” Vos said. “When I have been home over the course of the summer and fall, I have heard stories of parents and siblings who talk about how incredibly heartbreaking it is to deal with this struggle and especially see them relapse, sometimes multiple times. I certainly think (calling a special session) is a welcome step.”
Walker also issued two other executive orders Thursday directing the state health officials to apply for federal funding for opioid abuse programs and state agencies to adopt a number of other task force recommendations that don’t require legislation.
Those recommendations include promoting opioid awareness among state workers, placing temporary drug return receptacles in state facilities, offering online training on opioid abuse for prison staff; calling on state veterans homes to follow best practices for opioid prescription and pain management; and integrating substance abuse awareness into Department of Children and Families programs.
Associated Press writer Scott Bauer also contributed to this report.