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Hassan, drug czar outline actions taken against drug crisis

By DAVID SOLOMON
State House Bureau

August 24. 2016 8:02PM




CONCORD — The state’s response to the opioid addiction crisis in the past year has been expansive and effective, according to Gov. Maggie Hassan and her drug czar James Vara, who outlined all the steps the state has taken to address what Hassan called “the most serious public health issue of our time.”

Hassan and Vara on Wednesday released a 19-page report documenting $24 million in state contracts approved for the opioid fight since June.

They also called for additional action in the immediate future, including expansion of medication-assisted treatment, creation of a needle exchange program, more aggressive prescription-drug monitoring and creation of a drug overdose death committee to track overdose trends.

The Executive Council chamber at the State House was packed with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, law enforcement, addiction and recovery service providers, and other stakeholders, for the release of the report.

The event also gave Hassan an opportunity to respond to critics who say that she was slow to respond to the crisis and that she has not been effective in deploying the money approved by the state Legislature.

Vara outlined all the steps that have been taken in the past year, including emergency and permanent prescribing rules for opioids, more aggressive Narcan distribution and the creation of a Good Samaritan law that protects a victim or witness from arrest or prosecution when they report an overdose.

He also cited the new statewide addiction crisis line (1-844-711-HELP), which he says has taken 700 calls since it was launched in May.

On the enforcement front, the state has increased penalties for fentanyl, provided financial support for Operation Granite Hammer and developed new training programs in the Department of Justice for investigation of overdose deaths.

The report outlines many other programs in training, prevention and intervention.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, who was among those on hand for the presentation, said bringing Vara on board as the Governor’s Adviser on Addiction and Behavioral Health was one of the best things Hassan has done so far.

Hassan’s first drug czar Jack Wozmak resigned amid controversy after one year in office.

“With James Vara we have a coordinated strategy,” he said, “but under Wozmak the money was not getting out into the communities.”

Vara is a former senior assistant attorney general.

“I think Vara has finally started to do the job we need a drug czar to do,” said Bradley, “but the fact remains that the death toll was 439 in 2015 and projected at 500 in 2016, so the inability to get resources (to) the various providers and prevention advocates has slowed down the response.”

dsolomon@unionleader.com


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