- Associated Press - Sunday, January 3, 2016

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - Heading into a bruising U.S. Senate race expected to be one of the nation’s most closely watched, Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan says she is confident she can work with New Hampshire’s Republican-controlled Legislature to find compromise on politically charged issues even as she fights to unseat the state GOP’s top elected official, Sen. Kelly Ayotte.

“In New Hampshire, almost every office runs every two years, and we always still come together and focus on what’s important to the people of our state,” Hassan told The Associated Press in an end-of-year interview last week. “It’s actually something that I think the people of New Hampshire are really good at holding us accountable for.”

The Hassan-Ayotte matchup is considered a marquee contest as Democrats seek to retake control of the Senate and is sure to bring a flood of money and national media attention to the state. Hassan announced in October that she would not seek a third, two-year term as governor and would run for Senate instead.

She told the AP that she hears from people in New Hampshire who feel Ayotte doesn’t represent their interests in Washington and instead works for special interest groups, a claim Ayotte’s campaign rejects.

Gov. Hassan is repeating the same tired attacks from the Washington Democrats’ playbook in order to distract voters from her failure to lead on the important issues facing New Hampshire,” said Ayotte spokeswoman Chloe Rockow. “Kelly has a strong record of working across the aisle to solve problems and deliver results for New Hampshire, and she has held almost 50 town hall meetings since being elected, where citizens talk to her directly about what’s on their minds so she can bring their concerns and ideas to the Senate.”

Throughout the campaign, Hassan will need to work with Republicans in Concord on significant issues including reauthorizing Medicaid expansion and the state’s growing drug abuse crisis.

Partisan battle lines have been drawn on both. Republicans say they’ll only continue Medicaid expansion if they can find a way to keep state taxpayers from footing the bill. Federal funding for the program, which insures 44,000 people in New Hampshire, covered all the costs to start but the funding ultimately drops to 90 percent. And Hassan’s appointed “drug czar,” tasked with coordinating the state response to the drug abuse crisis, has become a political lightning rod, with Republican leaders calling for his ouster and some advocates questioning his effectiveness.

On Medicaid expansion, Hassan said her office is working to communicate the program’s success stories to skeptical lawmakers. Republican senators, meanwhile, are talking with hospitals about picking up a share of the costs for continuing the plan. Hospitals overall are benefiting from the program because uncompensated costs are decreasing.

Asked if she supports a payment deal with hospitals, Hassan said she “appreciates” the discussion but wouldn’t endorse or reject the idea. Instead, she said it’s important to remember that Medicaid expansion is bringing millions of federal dollars into the state and saves money in numerous ways.

“I expect we will be able to identify additional savings as people need less critical care and less emergent care,” she said. “So I think it’s important to look at the whole picture when we talk about how we go forward paying for the state portion.”

On drug abuse, both parties agree it’s a top priority but sometimes disagree on how to get there, particularly when it comes to the efficacy of Hassan’s “drug czar,” Jack Wozmak, who was appointed in January 2015.

Members of the Governor’s Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention, Treatment and Recovery, along with many GOP lawmakers, have started to question whether Wozmak is up to the task. He first came under fire when police chiefs and some medical providers said they had never been contacted by him. When he spoke before a legislative task force aimed at tackling substance abuse in December, some Republicans said he failed to show concrete evidence of what he’s accomplished and seemed to lack passion.

Despite the criticism, Hassan defends Wozmak’s performance. She said many of the task force’s substance abuse proposals flow directly from recommendations Wozmak made earlier in the summer. In one, he called for expanding access to the overdose reversal drug naloxone. Hassan noted that Rite Aid pharmacies recently announced plans to make the drug available over the counter.

Hassan said a number of proposals vetted by the task force track closely with Wozmak’s ideas, including expanding drug courts and improving the prescription drug monitoring program.

“Moving forward, I think it’s really important for people to focus on where we’ve been, where we are, where we need to go in terms of substance abuse, and (people) really should stop politicizing the issue,” Hassan said.

House Republican Majority Leader Dick Hinch, who helped lead the task force, said Wozmak deserves no credit for the task force’s work.

“I would absolutely disagree with the governor on that,” he said. “I wouldn’t give the drug czar credit for any of that at all.”


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