HARRISBURG - Taking a significant step to deal with what he has called a statewide crisis, Gov. Wolf said Thursday that he would call a special session of the legislature this year to address the prescription opioid epidemic.
The session will convene "by the end of the summer, if not early fall," said House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny), and will focus on finding solutions to an issue rippling across nearly every community.
The announcement came as lawmakers from both parties and the governor gathered in the Capitol rotunda to renew attention on a problem that has grown dramatically in recent years.
Almost two-thirds of the 47,000 overdose deaths nationwide in 2014 were opioid-related, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That year, Pennsylvania recorded about 1,600 overdose deaths from opioid medications and 800 from heroin, the state Coroners Association reported.
Wolf has traveled around the state during the last year for roundtable discussions with experts and others on how to prevent or reduce opioid abuse.
"Our fellow citizens are looking to us for action," he said Thursday, calling such addiction "a Pennsylvania problem."
Other states have made opioids a front-burner health issue. Gov. Pete Shumlin of Vermont devoted his entire 2014 State of the State address to opioids. Gov. Christie has spoken passionately about them.
In Pennsylvania, special legislative sessions have historically been reserved for the most important issues facing the state. Only four times since 2000 have lawmakers convened to brainstorm on a critical issue.
G. Terry Madonna, a professor of public affairs at Franklin at Marshall College and a longtime Capitol observer, said such sessions have a "checkered history" of efficacy.
"Many have not produced much in the way of meaningful legislation," he said.
Still, Madonna said he would be surprised if this session did not produce results, given the attention to the epidemic.
At their news conference, legislators noted that there has been some progress. A legislative task force was formed two years ago to focus on opioid abuse and deadly overdoses. And on Thursday, the House passed three bills that in part grew out of that task force's recommendations.
One sets a seven-day limit, with exceptions, on the prescription of opioids in emergency rooms. Another would require health insurers to cover "abuse-deterrent" opioid medication. The third would require doctors and other health providers to further their education in opioid effects before prescribing the drugs to patients.
The House has also passed a bill setting guidelines for the proper disposal of unused prescriptions. All now move to the Senate for consideration.
The topic could get direct action from the legislature before then. Among other measures, Wolf is pushing for an additional $34 million in next year's budget to treat more than 11,000 residents who currently are receiving no treatment.
The budget deadline is July 1.