Alaska Gov. Walker unveils bill to combat opioid abuse

JUNEAU — Alaska Gov. Bill Walker on Monday released a new bill that would put into law some of his pledges to combat the state's epidemic of opioid abuse, with new education requirements for medical workers, limits on prescriptions and more aggressive monitoring.

Walker announced a new initiative on the addictive painkillers at his State of the State speech in January, and he followed it with a formal disaster declaration in February, along with an administrative order asking state agencies to apply for federal grants for prevention and treatment.

[Alaska governor declare opioid abuse a public health disaster]

His new legislation — identical bills 159 in the House and 79 in the Senate — would carry out some of the pledges Walker made in his State of the State Speech. Among its provisions:

• It would allow patients to sign a "voluntary non-opioid directive" asking their doctors not to give them the drugs — a request that exempts emergency treatment and can be revoked at any time. It also would institute a new law allowing a person to ask a pharmacist to give less than the prescribed amount of certain drugs. And it would limit initial opioid prescriptions to one week for adults outside of a hospital.

• It would create new regulations requiring continuing education on pain management and opioid use for dentists, nurses, doctors and other health care workers. It would allow the state pharmacy board to send prescribers confidential "report cards" comparing their practices to others in the same specialty field, and to notify medical licensing boards if someone's prescribing practices are outside "generally recognized standards," according to a summary of the bill that Walker sent to legislative leaders. The report cards, even without patient names, would not be subject to the state's public records laws.

• It would require the state's prescription database to be updated daily instead of weekly and permit punishment of health care workers who ignore it.

Walker announced the legislation at a Monday morning news conference at the Capitol. It comes as the state faces increasing overdoses attributed to opioid abuse — with a particularly sharp uptick in fatal heroin overdoses, which jumped to 36 in 2015 from seven in 2009, according to state figures.

Walker said he hopes the bill will pass in the current legislative session, which has seven weeks until it's scheduled to conclude. But the Senate president, Pete Kelly of Fairbanks, referred the legislation to three different committees instead of the usual one or two — a rare step usually reserved for bills marked for defeat or delay.

Kelly sent the legislation to the same two committees selected by House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham — health and finance — but he added a referral to the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee, chaired by Anchorage Republican Mia Costello. The move was viewed with skepticism by at least one minority member, Anchorage Democratic Sen. Bill Wielechowski.

"It's an important issue — I think everybody agrees it's an important issue," Wielechowski said. He added: "It doesn't need to go to labor and commerce."

A spokesman for Kelly's Republican-led Senate majority, Daniel McDonald, said the legislation was sent to the Labor and Commerce Committee because it affects several professional boards, the health committee because it's a health-related issue and the finance committee because the bill comes with a fiscal note.

Nathaniel Herz

Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He’s been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at ADN and Alaska Public Media. He’s reported around the state and loves cross-country skiing.