The opioid crisis is one of the most politicized issues in the New Hampshire Senate race. From ads and accusations to plans and programs, how to combat the crisis is a focal point of Democrat Gov. Maggie Hassan and Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s campaigns.
Hassan outlined her plan on Thursday at a roundtable discussion on substance abuse at Nashua Community College. She made it clear that Congress needs to do its job.
“I will let you know that if Congress fails to act this year, I will work in the Senate to make emergency funding the very first bill the next Congress passes, and the next law the President signs,” she said.
That’s one of her first points in her 16-page plan that she released. She lists about 22 different actions she would take to fight the crisis and curb the number of overdose deaths each year.
But her plan isn’t too different from bills and measures that Ayotte has supported. Out of the 22 actions Hassan puts forward, more than half are also supported by Ayotte.
In a race where Hassan and Ayotte are trying to paint each other as an extreme candidate, the opioid issue, which is supposed to divide them, actually shows them in agreement on many ways to handle the crisis.
Throughout Hassan’s plan, she praises Sen. Jeanne Shaheen for leading the charge on securing more funding to fight opioids and improve substance abuse treatment. Hassan and Shaheen support the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016 (CARA), which authorizes the government to award grants to address the opioid and heroin epidemic, but the bill has been criticized for offering programs, but no funding for them.
“While Governor Hassan appreciates the bipartisan acknowledgement of the heroin and opioid crisis in Congress, she shares Senator Jeanne Shaheen’s frustration that without funding, ‘Congress is offering a life preserver with no air in it,’” Hassan’s plan states.
Ayotte is also a cosponsor of CARA and she cosponsored Shaheen’s legislation in November granting $600 million in immediate funds to various government agencies tasked with research, intervention and substance abuse recovery. The bill has not made it to the Senate floor yet.
Hassan and Ayotte also agree on the use of Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs and sharing prescription drug data across state lines. Hassan said she would work on legislation requiring the program nationwide, but Ayotte introduced a bipartisan bill authorizing funds for a grant for PDMPs in states.
Shaheen put forward a law that would address the growing drug caseloads at police forensic labs. In her plan, Hassan said she supports the law, while citing measures she took as governor to assist in alleviating the workload.
Ayotte’s Senate office confirmed that the senator also supports the bill.
“In October 2015, Senator Ayotte called on the Department of Justice to work with New Hampshire to reduce this backlog, and she is supportive of Senator Shaheen’s legislation,” said Lauren Zelt, Ayotte’s deputy communications director.
The bill was introduced in November 2015 and has yet to reach the Senate floor.
Another measure Hassan and Ayotte agree on is improvements to labeling of opioid-based medications.
Rep. Ann Kuster put forward a bill in June titled “Carl’s Law” to fight this issue. It was introduced on behalf of Carl Messinger, a Granite Stater, who died of a fentanyl overdose after he relapsed when he was prescribed an opiate medication while in recovery by a physician unaware of his history of addiction.
Shaheen introduced the same legislation in the Senate on Thursday.
“Appropriately labeling opiate-containing medication is a simple and necessary way to inform consumers of the risks,” she said in a statement. “Carl Messinger’s relapse and ultimate overdose could have been prevented by clear labeling on the cough medicine his doctor prescribed.”
Ayotte’s office said she supports Shaheen’s bill and has asked to be a cosponsor on it.
In Hassan’s plan, she too said she would support the opioid labeling legislation.
“In the Senate, she will continue to push the FDA to weigh the risk of drug-seeking behavior in the consideration of labels for opioid medications and to support Rep. Kuster’s strong advocacy in this area,” the plan states.
One area Hassan and Ayotte differ on handling the opioid crisis is on the expansion of Medicaid.
Ayotte has voted to phase out the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare in order to offer improved reforms that would broaden healthcare access, but Hassan signed into law an expansion of the program. Hassan says the Medicaid expansion helps families access health services.
“In the Senate, Governor Hassan will fight misguided efforts to repeal Medicaid expansion, which would take health care coverage away from tens of thousands of Granite State families and hinder their ability to access behavioral health and substance use disorder treatment services,” her plan states.
Despite their stances on Medicaid, overall, Ayotte and Hassan have similar plans on combatting the opioid crisis, yet it is still a highly politicized issue.
Hassan has faced extensive criticism during her time as governor for her handling of the crisis. Earlier this year, critics say she took too long to replace a state drug czar who had performed poorly in the job. And while Hassan is calling for more federal money to come into New Hampshire, her office was unaware of a $12 million grant the state had received to help stem the crisis.
More than 430 people died from drug overdoses last year in New Hampshire, and the state medical examiner’s office is expecting the number to near 500 in 2016.
“It’s a very emotional kind of thing for families and communities to deal with,” said Dean Spiliotes, civics scholar at Southern New Hampshire University. “It’s interesting because there is agreement over the problem and other kinds of things in their plans, but the big issue has been getting money.”
Outside spending groups have also been making the opioid crisis a central issue in the Senate campaigns rather than the campaigns themselves.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee released three television ads that criticize Hassan’s “mismanagement” of the opioid crisis. Hassan called the ads “false,” “disgusting,” and “trash.” Ayotte also called for the group to take the ads down, which they didn’t.
“It’s now more of a question of blaming who didn’t do anything quick enough,” Spiliotes said. “The government is responsible for handling the crisis, so it’s inherently political. It’s not ideological and everyone agrees that it’s a problem, with some differences on how to fund it. It’s more who is not doing enough and who is dropping the ball.”