HARRISBURG - Gov. Wolf has called it a public health crisis and an epidemic, crisscrossing Pennsylvania for more than a year to participate in roundtables and work sessions on how to combat prescription drug and heroin addiction.

On Wednesday, he used his office's bully pulpit to address a joint session of the legislature and urge lawmakers to swiftly pass bills aimed at fighting the problem - his boldest public move yet to focus attention on opioid abuse.

For the first-term Democratic governor, the issue has become a platform to flex his political muscle and score wins in a legislature that has fought him at nearly every turn on other major issues.

It has also helped raise the state's profile in what has become a nationwide push to staunch the staggering number of deaths related to opioid addiction. From 1999 to 2014, more than 165,000 people died from overdoses from prescription opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"I would put Pennsylvania up there with two or three other states that have been at the forefront," said Mark Parrino, president of the American Association for the Treatment of Opioid Dependence - though he stressed that the state, like others, still has much work to do, particularly in providing people suffering from addiction a clear, dependable, and uninterrupted path toward treatment.

But having a governor and other officials forcing attention to the problem will be critical to finding solutions, he said.

For Wolf, at least, that task hasn't been fraught with the same political pitfalls he's faced on other issues.

The Republican-dominated legislature already had its own loud voices advocating for policy changes to help end the crisis, with many more joining that call.

On other issues, Republicans have battled him on both fiscal and social fronts - most notably on the budget, which led to a historic impasse last year. But they seem to want to work with him on this issue.

Wolf initially wanted to call a special legislative session, a rarely invoked tool, to tackle the issue of opioid addiction and treatment.

The assembly nixed that idea, since its two-year session will draw to a close in November. It only has six working days scheduled between now and then, and it will quickly run out of time to act on specific bills. Any measure that it does not approve will have to be reintroduced and start from scratch when the new session begins in January.

So Wolf took a different route: calling the joint legislative session to deliver something other than an annual budget speech.

"You can't underestimate the public relations aspect of it," said pollster and political observer G. Terry Madonna. "It galvanizes the entire legislature around an issue."

In 2014, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin dedicated his entire State of the State speech to the problem of combating the heroin and opioid crisis, a move that helped that state usher in changes.

Still, some have questioned whether Wolf's speech will end up being more symbolic than anything else, given the political climate and calendar.

Rep. Aaron Kaufer (R., Luzerne), who co-chairs a legislative panel on opioid and heroin abuse prevention, signaled after Wolf's speech that he was skeptical of how much can be accomplished in a mere six days. He said he would have preferred a special session on opioids, and was frustrated that there wasn't more of a push for one.

"We as legislators get so involved in so many different issues," he said. "I wanted a laser focus on this issue."

acouloumbis@phillynews.com

717-787-5934

@AngelasInk