Senate approves overdose-fighting bill

This Feb. 19, 2013, file photo shows OxyContin pills arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt. On Thursday, the Alaska Senate voted 17-1 to restrict the amount of opioid painkillers that may be prescribed with a single prescription. House Bill 159 now returns to the House for a procedural vote. (Associated Press file)

This Feb. 19, 2013, file photo shows OxyContin pills arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt. On Thursday, the Alaska Senate voted 17-1 to restrict the amount of opioid painkillers that may be prescribed with a single prescription. House Bill 159 now returns to the House for a procedural vote. (Associated Press file)

The Alaska Senate 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 by a 17-1 margin.

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.

The measure now goes to the House, which must approve changes made in the Senate.

In 2016, 95 Alaskans died of opioid overdoses (including illegal opioids, such as heroin). Furthermore, state studies indicate that many of Alaska’s heroin users first became addicted to prescription opioids, then switched to heroin.

“The overprescription of opioids in Alaska is killing Alaskans, and this bill will reduce addiction by reducing available prescription opioids,” said Senate Majority Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna and the bill’s backer on Thursday.

If signed into law, HB 159 would 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.

Sen. Donny Olson, D-Nome and a doctor, said he would like to allow doctors the flexibility to prescribe more drugs, but he sees the opioid epidemic a public safety issue.

“Because of that, I think for the greater good, I would like to speak in favor of this,” he said.

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

Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, was the lone no vote on the bill.

Speaking on the Senate floor, she said lawmakers are asking doctors “to do a little bit more when they’re not the problem.”

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 House of Representatives could pass the Senate’s version of HB 159 as early as today. If it does, the bill will held to Walker, who is expected to sign it.

HB 159 was the sole non-budgetary item placed on the Legislature’s special-session agenda by Walker, who set the agenda.

Budget update

Also Thursday, the Senate appointed Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage; Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka; and Sen. Donny Olson, D-Nome to the conference committee for House Bill 111.

The Senate committee, together with a three-person group from the House, is charged with ironing out the differences between House-passed and Senate-passed versions of HB 111.

HB 111 would, if signed into law, reduce the state’s subsidy of oil and gas drilling.

Members of the coalition majority that controls the House of Representatives have said that an agreement on HB 111 is a prerequisite for negotiations on the state budget and on the Permanent Fund spending plan (Senate Bill 26) that is intended to erase much of the state’s $2.7 billion deficit.

Through a staffer, Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage and chairwoman of the conference committee, said the committee’s plan is to begin holding meetings on Monday.

If that schedule holds, it would leave lawmakers with little more than a week and a half to cut the fiscal Gordian knot that has strangled Alaska for three years.

The first special session of the 30th Alaska Legislature is scheduled to end on June 16. If negotiations fail to finish by then, Walker could call lawmakers back to a second special session.

Lawmakers will still face a hard deadline of July 1.

If there is no budget deal before then, state government will shut down.

• Contact reporter James Brooks at or call 419-7732.

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