PHOENIX — State lawmakers are to begin working Tuesday on a bipartisan plan they hope will make a significant dent in opioid addiction, abuse and deaths in Arizona.
“In 2016, more than two Arizonans died each day due to an opioid overdose,” said Dr. Cara Christ, the state’s health director, at a ceremony where Gov. Doug Ducey signed a proclamation for a special legislative session this week to deal with the issue.
“Since 2012, we’ve seen an increase of 74 percent in opiod-related deaths,” she continued. “Drug overdoses kill more Arizonans than car accidents.”
The legislative proposal contains funding to help provide treatment for addicts. The state already does some of that through its Medicaid program. This package contains $10 million for those whose income leaves them unqualified for that.
But the governor said the measure also has a strong element designed to prevent addiction in the first place. That’s built around a proposed five-day limit on opioids doctors can prescribe to patients who have not been on the drug for at least 60 days.
“When it goes past five days or six days, that’s when the incidence of addiction skyrocket,” Ducey said. “So the objective here was not only to treat people that are suffering addiction so that they can get off it, but to prevent future addictions and overdoses from happening.”
He said the legislation should not harm others.
“People that have chronic pain, people that are suffering from chronic pain and are already benefiting from these miracle drugs, there will be no change for them,” he said.
In fact, the legislation as introduced allows doctors to prescribe a 14-day supply for post-surgical patients. And there is no limit for cancer and burn patients and those getting special care for pain.
But doctors would no longer be able to dispense pills themselves and would have to send patients to pharmacies to get them.
The Republican governor called the measure “the most aggressive piece of public policy, the most thorough and thoughtful piece of public policy that’s been introduced in years.”
Legislative Democrats are willing to go along, especially once they got that $10 million for addiction treatment included in the package. But they don’t see this as a cure-all.
“It’s a thoughtful and thorough first step,” said Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs. “We won’t win this battle in one year.”
State lawmakers already are in session, and the pieces of the package could have been added to the regular legislative agenda.
But by calling a concurrent special session, Ducey sets the stage to go from proposal to finished law in three days.
Ducey said the measure has been in the works since September, with input from members of the medical community, law enforcement and addiction experts. “And now it will be debated in the light of day in both of our chambers,” he said.
“We needed urgency and focus on this issue, which is a crisis in our state,” he added. “It called for a special session.”
But this approach also shortens the amount of time for people to read and scrutinize the final legislation — it was not available until about 5 p.m. Monday — and be able to seek changes.
There are some potential flash points.
For example, the proclamation for the session says there will be new enforcement procedures to go after doctors who overprescribe not just opioids but similar drugs. That could raise questions from doctors who specialize in pain management.
Ducey also wants to allow the state to charge companies that manufacture opioids as well as their executives with felonies for misrepresenting the effectiveness and addictive nature of their wares.
And the governor proposes to require insurance companies to expedite authorization for certain kinds of treatments.
That is based on concerns that while patients are awaiting the go-ahead from insurers for surgery, they end up being given opioids for the pain, increasing the possibility of addiction.
There also is a “good Samaritan’’ provision, allowing someone who is using drugs to call for help when a companion needs medical attention without putting himself or herself at risk of arrest.