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Bills targeting opioid abuse pass Legislature (UPDATE)

By SCOTT BAUER and
TODD RICHMOND
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin lawmakers passed a package of bills Tuesday designed to combat opioid abuse, which has reached epidemic proportions and causes more overdose deaths than there are traffic deaths in the state.

The nine proposals approved nearly unanimously by the Senate were expected to be quickly signed by Gov. Scott Walker, who called lawmakers into a special session to take up the bills and draw attention to opioid abuse. Walker thanked lawmakers in a tweet and said he looked forward to signing the bills. The Assembly passed two more opioid-related proposals Tuesday evening as well.

While the measures passed with bipartisan support, some Senate Democrats argued Tuesday they didn’t go far enough to reduce the number of overdose deaths in the state. Drug overdose deaths in Wisconsin have doubled since 2005 and surpassed the number of people killed in car crashes since 2008.

The bills passed in the Senate would expand treatment options, increase training for doctors and school staff, create a charter high school for recovering addicts, spend more money on programs to divert addicts from going to jail and hire additional state drug agents to combat trafficking.

“While they are good, they are small, targeted and don’t take advantage of many, many resources available to us,” said Democratic Sen. Janet Bewley in criticizing the bills. Bewley, who joined all other Democrats in voting for all the measures, said Democratic input should have been taken into account to improve the proposals.

“We missed an opportunity to really do good things for the entire state,” she said.

Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach argued that Wisconsin should accept money from the federal government to expand Medicaid coverage, which could free up money to spend on fighting drug abuse. Walker and Republicans have refused to accept the money, while some other Republican governors have taken it, arguing that the funding may not last.

“We could be doing so much more and I don’t know why we don’t,” Erpenbach said.

The Assembly overwhelmingly passed two other opioid bills on Tuesday evening that have yet to come up in the Senate.

One would allow emergency and involuntary commitment for drug addicts. The other measure would ensure that someone who overdoses would be immune from probation or parole revocation if he or she enters a treatment program. District attorneys would have to offer a person who overdoses a deferred prosecution agreement that includes treatment if the person is subject to a possession charge. That bill’s provisions would last three years and one month before they sunset.

The measure originally provided immunity from criminal prosecution for those who overdose and contained no sunset clause, but the bill’s author, Republican state Rep. John Nygren of Marinette, softened it with an amendment.

He told reporters before the Assembly session began that some of his colleagues were uncomfortable with removing accountability for using drugs and the sunset provision gives lawmakers an opportunity to review the bill’s effectiveness.

Nygren is the lead sponsor on all 11 bills, which grew out of a task force Walker convened on opioids. Nygren’s daughter, Cassie, has struggled with heroin for years and he has become the public face of the Legislature’s battle to curb opioid abuse.

Walker has signed more than 15 Nygren bills addressing opioid abuse since 2013. Walker declared opioid abuse a public health crisis the day he called the special session on the latest package of bills, but Republicans who control the Legislature have moved slowly, spending four months getting the measures through both houses.

Nygren attributed the delay to the time taken to receive feedback and improve the bills. And he vowed that the work wasn’t done yet.

“We’re not taking a victory lap on this anytime soon,” he said.

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