Legislature passes bill to fight opioid epidemic

The Alaska House voted Thursday to restrict the ability of doctors to prescribe opioid painkillers.

House Bill 159, proposed by Gov. Bill Walker, is part of the state’s effort to fight a surge in the number of deaths linked to opioid overdoses and was approved 29-10 shortly after the House approved a shutdown-averting budget deal.

The Alaska Senate approved the bill during the Legislature’s first special session of 2017; the House’s vote Thursday night sends it Gov. Bill Walker.

When signed into law, HB 159 will allow doctors (including veterinarians, eye doctors and dentists) to prescribe only a week’s worth of opioid drugs to patients who need painkillers. Currently, doctors can prescribe up to a month’s worth in a single batch.

That practice has led to a large number of excess pills in circulation, which encourages abuse, lawmakers have said.

HB 159 also requires pharmacies and doctors to keep closer tabs on their opioid drugs through a shared database.

Violators of the bill may face sanctions from their profession’s state governing board.

Speaking in opposition to the bill was Rep. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, who said she opposes the expanded use of a required database. Other lawmakers opposed the bill because they feel it unduly restricts the ability of doctors to self-govern their profession.

Among the ‘no’ votes were 10 Republicans, including one ─ Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage ─ from the House’s coalition majority.

Since 2005, the opioid death rate has risen four-fold, according to figures from the Alaska Section of Epidemiology. It remains below the death rates for firearms, suicide, alcohol, accidents, and diseases linked to unhealthy eating and a lack of exercise.

Before 2010, the vast majority of Alaska’s opioid overdoses came from prescription drugs, typically OxyContin, which is manufactured by Purdue Pharma.

In 2010, Purdue reformulated OxyContin to make abuse more difficult. OxyContin overdoses dropped, but abusers switched to heroin. In 2016, according to state figures, the number of heroin overdoses (49) topped the number of prescription opioid overdoses (46) for the first time since 2005.

The bill does not address heroin, just prescription opioids. State studies indicate that many of Alaska’s heroin users began their addictions with prescription drugs.

HB 159 was the sole non-budgetary item put into the first and second special session by Walker, who set their agendas.

 


 

Contact reporter James Brooks at james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com or call 419-7732.

 


 

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