When the Republican-controlled General Assembly refused to extend Gov. Tom Wolf’s opioid disaster declaration back in August, GOP leaders promised that addressing drug overdose deaths would be a ”top legislative priority” in the fall.

The overdose crisis could have been a top legislative priority for a long time, but, as it did in City Council, the issue took a backseat. That’s a big reason why a disaster declaration was necessary in the first place. By tapping into emergency powers back in January 2018, Wolf’s administration was able to loosen regulations, increase data sharing among agencies, and allow access to more resources over the last three years.

In 2017, the year before the declaration was signed, Pennsylvania lost 5,403 people to overdose deaths — the most ever recorded in the commonwealth. Over the next two years — when the proclamation was in place — annual overdose deaths were down to about 4,500, still a horrifically high number. In 2020, deaths surpassed 5,000 again.

The disaster declaration was effective over 90-day increments after which it had to be renewed. It was extended 15 times. By the time Wolf was going to sign off on the 16th extension something changed.

» READ MORE: Pa. allows its opioid emergency declaration to lapse

Unintended consequences

In the May 2021 election, voters approved two Republican-sponsored ballot measures: One gave lawmakers the authority to revoke a disaster declaration with a simple majority; the other limited the duration of emergency proclamations to 21 days (instead of 90) and transferred the power to extend those declarations from the governor to the legislature.

Republicans in the legislature quickly utilized their new power and in June voted to end Pennsylvania’s coronavirus disaster declaration.

But the vote to end the proclamation had an unintended consequence: It also meant the reinstatement of a series of alcohol-consumption rules that had been relaxed because of the pandemic. The softer rules had allowed outdoor dining and cocktail-to-go menus to flourish, providing a source of revenue for many restaurants and bars — a lifeline that was abruptly taken away when the declaration lapsed.

Despite bipartisan support, a bill to allow the sale of cocktails-to-go permanently — a potential boon for the state’s service industry — passed the House only to die in the Senate as the legislators took off for their summer break.

This board is concerned that the experience with the cocktails legislation may not bode well for the future of Pennsylvania’s response to the overdose crisis.

» READ MORE: Harrisburg Republicans keep finding new ways to harm Pennsylvanians | Editorial

A long to-do list

Pennsylvania’s secretary of Drug and Alcohol Programs, Jennifer Smith, told this board that back in January 2018, the disaster declaration allowed the administration to act swiftly while new measures were formally enacted to mitigate overdose deaths. Since the declaration was signed, some strategies have been put in place through new regulations, including the ability of first responders to distribute naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal medication.

But some issues remain unresolved.

For example: now that the disaster declaration has expired, it is going to be more expensive for jails and prisons to get access to naloxone — which has saved countless lives. It will also become more cumbersome for individuals to start treatment for opioid use disorder using the highly effective medication buprenorphine; beginning in 2018, Pennsylvania stopped requiring face-to-face visits with a physician to start treatment with the medication.

According to the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, both of these issues hinder the city’s efforts to prevent overdose deaths.

Beyond codifying elements of the disaster declaration, it’s essential that the legislature make access to syringes legal under state law. Philadelphia’s Sen. Anthony H. Williams and Lehigh County’s Patrick M. Browne circulated a co-sponsorship memorandum for a syringe services program legalization bill back in April. It’s time for them to introduce the bill and push to pass it.

» READ MORE: Legalize syringe exchange state-wide now | Editorial

In addition, it’s vital that Pennsylvania pass legislation making it clear that lifesaving testing strips that identify fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, are legal to possess and distribute — a particularly important harm-reduction measure as fentanyl is reportedly making its way into more types of drugs, including stimulants.

These legislative changes would also allow Pennsylvania to tap into federal dollars dedicated to harm reduction.

When voters approved the limits on the governor’s emergency power, Republican leaders said that balance was restored between the branches of government. With that balance then comes a duty to govern and it’s imperative that the legislature rise to the occasion. Lives are on the line.