- Associated Press - Thursday, February 4, 2016

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - With her Statehouse term winding down and her U.S. Senate campaign beginning, Gov. Maggie Hassan used her final State of the State address Thursday to argue that fighting the opioid crisis, reauthorizing Medicaid expansion and investing in workforce development are equally important to New Hampshire’s economic success.

Hassan, a Democrat elected in 2012 and re-elected two years later, is seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte in November, and her speech offered what could be the first hints of her campaign strategy.

As expected, she highlighted bipartisan efforts to combat substance abuse. Officials estimate 400 people died from drug overdoses in 2015, and Hassan recently signed a pair of bills produced by a task force she created last fall that, among other things, will standardize insurance coverage for substance abuse treatment and strengthen the penalties for dealing the painkiller fentanyl, which can be deadly when mixed with heroin. Hassan praised those efforts but urged lawmakers to act faster and spend more.

“Combating the scourge of addiction requires us at times to change the way we have always done things, at a quicker pace than is sometimes comfortable,” she said. “And it also requires additional resources and dollars. While some may say that we can’t afford to take steps that require additional funding, I believe that we can’t afford not to.”

Hassan noted that revenues are more than $40 million above projections so far this fiscal year.

“We can afford to address this challenge, and we must,” she said.

Hassan called for strengthening the state’s drug abuse treatment system, which she said has lagged behind other states. That’s one big reason the state must reauthorize Medicaid expansion, she said. More than 46,000 people have enrolled in Medicaid since Hassan signed the expansion into law in 2014, including thousands who’ve gotten substance abuse treatment, but the program will end this year unless lawmakers vote to reauthorize it.

A plan introduced by Republican lawmakers last week includes work requirements for recipients and asks insurance companies and hospitals to help foot the state’s share of the program’s costs. Hassan didn’t comment on that Thursday but said the expansion could save taxpayers $29 million over two years because more people are getting preventive and primary care, fewer uninsured residents are going to emergency rooms, and the state is getting more money from an insurance premium tax.

“It’s clear that the New Hampshire Health Protection Program is making a real difference for our people and boosting our economy, and we must reauthorize it now,” she said.

Also Thursday, Hassan announced a new program called Gateway to Work, which will use federal funds previously earmarked for welfare benefits to help those covered by Medicaid or receiving other state aid get jobs. Because of lower than expected caseloads, there is about $20 million available for the new program, Hassan’s office said, though details of how much will be spent haven’t been worked out yet.

Gateway to Work will include job training, a partnership between community colleges and businesses to create apprenticeships, and work with nonprofits to help at-risk families.

“Through Gateway to Work, we can provide more of the workers our businesses need to thrive, and we can help give more of our families the opportunity to work their way to self-sufficiency and into the middle class,” she said.

While Hassan touted the last two state budgets as proof that Republicans and Democrats can “bridge the political divide and accomplish great things together,” Republicans were quick to note that Hassan vetoed the most recent budget, leading to a months-long stalemate that ended in September.

“As she was paying lip service to bipartisanship, Gov. Hassan must have forgotten how her failed veto and summer of gridlock put funding for critical services at risk,” said state Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Horn. “It comes as no surprise that Governor Gridlock Maggie Hassan’s State of the State speech was short on substance and long on rhetoric, given that Hassan’s time in Concord has been marked by her lack of leadership and failure to address the challenges facing New Hampshire today.”

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