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Lawmakers find common ground in addressing heroin crisis
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Lawmakers find common ground in addressing heroin crisis

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SPRINGFIELD — Amid Illinois’ year long budget standoff, only a few issues have brought lawmakers together across party lines.

One is the state’s heroin and opioid crisis. Major legislation aimed at combating addiction and stemming the tide of overdose deaths passed unanimously in the House and was approved in the Senate with only four votes in opposition. 

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed a portion of the bill, but members of both parties voted to override his changes.

State Rep. Lou Lang of Skokie, the No. 3 Democrat in the House, championed the bill.

“I had read one too many reports about heroin taking over Illinois,” said Lang. “For Illinois to be ground zero in the heroin and opioid problem in this country made me stand up and take notice.”

Lang worked closely with state Rep. John Anthony, R-Joliet, a former Kendall County sheriff’s deputy, in drafting the legislation.

“We’ve moved from crisis to epidemic,” said Anthony. “I don’t know any neighborhood that’s unaffected by heroin.”

Among the law's provisions: 

•  Law enforcement agencies, fire departments and emergency medical service providers are required to possess anti-overdose drugs such as naloxone, commonly known as Narcan.

•  Once trained, pharmacists are authorized to dispense naloxone without a prescription.

• Hospitals, medical examiners and coroners are required to collect and report data on heroin and opioid overdose treatments and deaths.

• The state’s Medicaid program is expanded to cover all forms of medication-assisted treatment approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration for alcohol and opioid dependence. 

• Private insurance plans are required to cover anti-overdose medications. 

• Drug courts that provide an option other than prison for low-level drug offenders have been expanded.

Because the bill cuts across several state agencies, many of its provisions are still being implemented.

For example, the Department of Human Services (DHS) has an advisory committee in place for its prescription drug monitoring program. The committee will identify and distribute funding for a pilot program to encourage continued integration of hospitals’ electronic health records with the prescription monitoring program.

The Department of Public Health has drafted rules for the required training of emergency medical personnel on using anti-overdose drugs. Public Health also is in discussions with the Illinois Hospital Association about the requirement that hospitals report overdose treatments provided in their emergency rooms. 

The Department of Financial and Professional Regulation has set up training for pharmacists who want to dispense anti-overdose drugs. 

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the departments of Human Services and Public Health said the lack of a state budget hasn’t slowed implementation of the law.

Given its scope and complexity, lawmakers and advocates said they’re generally pleased with the progress so far.

“I think it’s going better than expected,” said Kathie Kane-Willis, director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University in Chicago.

However, there remain issues to be worked out, she said.

For example, the $75 fee for pharmacists to go through training on anti-overdose medications might prevent some from doing it, she said, adding there’s also the question of whether enough pharmacies will stock the medications.

Kelly O’Brien, Illinois executive director for The Kennedy Forum, a mental health advocacy group, said the state Department of Insurance also has done a good job so far setting up educational programs for consumers on the law’s requirements that insurance plans treat behavioral health and substance abuse the same as other medical issues. The department has set up a hot line for consumer complaints.

While this all takes place, lawmakers are working to strengthen several areas of the law.

One bill the General Assembly passed this spring would require any substance abuse program licensed by DHS to provide educational information on medication-based treatments and the use of anti-overdose drugs. Another would allow people going through drug court programs to continue taking medication for opioid addiction as prescribed by their doctors.

State Sen. Melinda Bush, D-Grayslake, who sponsored the legislation in the Senate, said other changes are under consideration, including programs that allow police officers to direct people with addiction issues to treatment rather than jail ,and the expansion of drug take-back programs to pharmacies.

Lang said lawmakers have a tendency to move onto other issues once they’ve passed legislation, but that won’t be the case with him when it comes to combating heroin and opioid abuse.

“As groundbreaking as (the new law) was, I did not look at it as the end of my journey, but the beginning,” he said.

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