- Associated Press - Saturday, November 14, 2015

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - State lawmakers are expected to create a task force aimed at tackling New Hampshire’s substance abuse crisis when they return to Concord on Wednesday for a special session.

If all goes according to plan, the task force will vet ideas put forward by Gov. Maggie Hassan and others so that legislation can be voted on quickly when the regular session opens in January.

Hassan wanted lawmakers to take up comprehensive legislation during the special session but she and other Democrats say the task force is a positive step forward. Republicans say the Legislature must spend time appropriately studying the issues before rushing into policy changes.

“I hear a lot from communities wanting to know when help is coming, and I hope that how this process plays out answers that question very, very clearly,” said Tym Rourke, chair of a governor’s commission on substance abuse.

Lawmakers can propose amendments Wednesday, so the makeup or issues of focus for the task force could change.

Here are the six topics the task force will take up if it’s approved:

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FENTANYL PENALTIES

Fentanyl, a synthetic narcotic much stronger than heroin, is now responsible for more overdose deaths in New Hampshire than its less-potent counterpart, but people who deal the powerful painkiller don’t face as strict a sentence for selling it. Under existing state law, selling fentanyl brings a maximum sentence of seven years, regardless of the amount. Dealing heroin, by contrast, can carry a sentence up to 30 years. There is broad agreement among lawmakers that fentanyl dealers should face the same penalties.

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INSURANCE COVERAGE

President Barack Obama’s health care law requires insurance companies to cover substance abuse services the same way they cover other chronic disease. But providers and advocates say some insurers are still rejecting treatment or recovery services, forcing people to pay out of pocket or leave those centers early. The task force will look at insurance companies’ evaluation criteria for coverage, enforcement and removing requirements for people to receive prior authorization from their doctor.

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DRUG MONITORING

New Hampshire began operating a prescription drug monitoring program in 2014 with a goal of tracking whether people are doctor- or pharmacy-shopping. But the program lacks teeth in several areas. Pharmacies have up to seven days after dispensing a prescription to submit the data and the law doesn’t require doctors to check the database before prescribing. New Hampshire doesn’t actively share data with other states, making it harder to tell if people are crossing state lines to get prescriptions filled. The task force will study whether to mandate better use of the system and if money is needed to update the system’s technology.

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MEDICAL EDUCATION

Prescribing addictive painkillers has been the topic of scrutiny from Hassan’s office and the task force will discuss opportunities for continuing medical education related to prescribing drugs. A new education program is already underway. The Board of Medicine is also reviewing its prescribing guidelines after widely rejecting changes proposed by Hassan’s office.

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DRUG COURTS

Five of New Hampshire’s 10 counties have drug courts and the task force will discuss creating a grant program to open more. Republican Sens. David Boutin and Jeb Bradley have filed legislation to provide $2.5 million in grants to help counties pay to open drug courts. Drug courts help people get into treatment programs rather than going to jail.

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LAW ENFORCEMENT

The task force will look at replicating a partnership between the Manchester Police Department and state police aimed at cracking down on drug dealers. Through a $90,000 grant, state police are putting in thousands of additional hours in partnership with Manchester officers to target dealers through traffic stops and other means. Republican Sen. Jeanie Forrester says it’s critical to cut off the supply of drugs as well as diminish demand.

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