Saturday March 23, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- Painkiller abuse is a big problem in Vermont, and state legislators have crafted a big bill designed to combat it.

The House of Representatives on Friday overwhelmingly approved an opioid and methamphetamine bill that addresses prevention, treatment and public safety.

The legislation even attempts to slow addiction-related thefts of precious metals and requires landlords to report potential drug abuse. And a companion bill attempts to ensure that Vermonters won't hesitate to call for help if they witness an overdose.

Rep. Dick Marek, D-Newfane, said lawmakers are trying to address a public-health crisis.

"I think it is going to help save lives in Vermont," Marek said.

"We have a huge problem with opiate abuse in Vermont," he added. "We are seeing approximately one death a week from opiate overdoses."

In a preliminary roll call on Thursday, the House voted 137-1 in favor of the opioid/methamphetamine bill. Eleven representatives were absent, and the sole negative vote came from Rep. Andy Donaghy of Poultney.

Donaghy contended the bill didn't go far enough: Law enforcement, he said, should be able -- "under very controlled circumstances" -- to search a state prescription-management database without a warrant.

But Rep. Matt Trieber, a Rockingham Democrat, said that provision was left out of the legislation for a reason: It led to the bill's failure in the 2012 session.

"That was one of my big regrets last session -- that we didn't get that through," Trieber said.

"We want police to be able to access (the database) only with a warrant," he added. "We think that Vermonters' electronic medical records need to be protected."

It is not clear whether the state Senate, when considering the bill in the coming weeks, might try to widen law enforcement's access to the prescription database.

As it stands, the bill casts a wide net in attempting to curtail prescription-painkiller abuse. Provisions reportedly include:

-- Requiring doctors who prescribe narcotic painkillers to register with a state prescription drug database and to check the database when they suspect a patient might be abusing painkillers or diverting the drugs to others.

-- Requiring pharmacists to ask for identification from people picking up certain prescriptions.

-- Setting new standards for hospitals to refer patients who appear to be addicted to painkillers to drug treatment programs.

-- Having the state Health Department create a new program to distribute to friends and families of addicts a drug known to counteract the effect of opiate overdoses.

-- Setting new standards for reporting overdoses and deaths from overdoses.

The bill also limits the sale of drugs commonly used in manufacturing methamphetamine and requires that those drugs be "maintained in a locked display case or behind the counter out of the public's reach" at pharmacies.

Rep. Mike Mrowicki, a Putney Democrat, said his Human Services Committee and the House Judiciary Committee -- on which Marek sits -- have been working for months on the bill.

"This is a comprehensive plan to address this complex problem," Mrowicki said. "It tightens requirements for doctors, pharmacists and patients when writing, filling and picking up opioid prescriptions; it expands access to treatment; and it gives law enforcement more tools for preventing diversion of prescriptions and for tracking stolen property taken by drug abusers to pay for their addiction."

The latter provision comes via a section of the bill that defines "precious metal dealers" and imposes new requirements on such businesses. The idea, officials said, is to make it much more difficult for addicts to steal precious metals and make a quick buck.

For instance, dealers must ask for identification from anyone attempting to sell precious metals, keep records of those transactions and hold the material for 10 days before reselling it, Marek said.

"We've exempted antique dealers, because they really aren't the problem," Marek said. "And we exempt very low-level, incidental dealers in precious metals."

Also, dealers who annually purchase or sell precious metals valued at $2,000 or more must obtain a license.

Due to concerns about drug use and methamphetamine manufacturing in vacant properties, Marek said the bill also includes "more teeth" for anti-trespassing laws and sets forth new requirements for property owners.

"If a landlord knows that someone is using their property for the purpose of selling, using or manufacturing drugs, the landlord is obligated to report that to law enforcement," Marek said.

A companion bill that also received House approval on Friday seeks to curb overdose deaths by granting immunity from drug-related prosecution for those who report an overdose emergency.

"If someone calls 911 for a rescue of someone who is in a serious overdose and whose life is in jeopardy, that person and people who are trying to help the victim are not going to be subject to prosecution by law enforcement for things that they might see when they come in the door," Marek said.

He said lawmakers heard from police officials who support the bill.

"We had testimony from police officers saying, ‘We want to save the life -- we really don't care about the bust at that point. If this person's a serious user or a repeated user, we know who they are and we'll catch them another time,'" Marek said.

In addition to the opioid bill, local House members said they had a busy week that included debate and approval of several other major measures:

-- As expected, the House approved a transportation bill that includes a new sales tax on gasoline. The levy equates to about 7 cents per gallon at current prices.

The tax would rise again in fiscal 2015, with future increases tied to the Consumer Price Index.

The bill received final approval Thursday. In an earlier roll-call vote, all of Windham County's representatives supported the measure.

That includes Rep. Mike Hebert, a Vernon Republican who said he had to make a "difficult decision."

"I've had constituents saying they can't afford any more taxes," Hebert said.

At the same time, Hebert said he understands that there are "huge needs" for the state's transportation infrastructure. Officials have said the gas tax goes a long way toward plugging a $36.5 million gap in Vermont's fiscal 2014 transportation fund.

"This is probably the only tax increase you'll see me voting for," Hebert said.

Rep. Mollie Burke, a Brattleboro Progressive Democrat who sits on the House Transportation Committee, offered an analysis showing the impact of the new tax.

In a vehicle that gets 25 miles per gallon, and with gas prices at $3.77 per gallon, a person driving 10,000 miles annually would pay an extra $27 for gas over the course of a year, the state analysis shows.

The additional, tax-related cost rises to $43 for a person driving 16,000 miles.

-- The House also passed an energy bill that, in comments recorded by the official House journal, Mrowicki praised as putting Vermont "one step closer to our goals of a thoughtful, sustainable energy future."

"It will save us money through thermal efficiency, keep LIHEAP funds helping the needy and it keeps Vermont ahead of other states in having an evolving plan for our energy future," Mrowicki said.

But the bill does not include a major funding source to advance the state's ambitious weatherization efforts.

"I believe very strongly in the weatherization program," Trieber said. "However, this is a very tough budget year."

-- Trieber said the Human Services Committee on Friday recommended in a 6-5 vote to cap enrollment in the state's Reach Up welfare program at 60 months. Vermont currently has no termination date for welfare recipients.

Gov. Peter Shumlin had proposed a 36-month cap with two non-consecutive years following. But Trieber called that plan "disruptive" and said the 36-month limit was "too short."

"The goal is not to kick people out of Reach Up," Trieber said. "My goal in this is really to help them find jobs."

-- Rep. Tristan Toleno, a Brattleboro Democrat, said the House Agriculture Committee has been occupied with working on a bill requiring labeling for genetically engineered foods.

"The bill attempts to strike a balance between the strong interest of consumers who are concerned about genetic engineering technology, the needs of Vermont farmers and food producers and the federal role in regulating food safety," Toleno said. "The bill will be taken up next by the House Judiciary Committee."

He added that "significant time has also been spent on a bill designed to improve the professionalism of the dog- and cat-breeding community through a new permit process and streamlined animal-welfare standards. This bill will likely head to the Senate next week."

-- A new public-records law was approved 29-0 in the Senate with one senator absent.

Sen. Jeanette White, a Putney-based Democrat, said there currently is a "categorical exemption" keeping all Vermont criminal-investigation records closed to the public, though officials can decided to release some documents at their discretion.

Under the new bill, Vermont's open-record standards would match federal Freedom of Information Act standards. White said that gives state officials clear guidance on what is open to the public and what is not, while it also eliminates the categorical exemption that closes all such records to public inspection.

"I think it's a win for the public's right to know," she said.

-- White, a Judiciary Committee member, said the Senate extended the statute of limitations for victims of childhood sexual abuse. Victims currently have until age 24 -- or 10 years after the alleged offense, whichever is greater -- to report those crimes so that they can be prosecuted.

The Senate vote extends the statute of limitations to age 40, White said.

-- Senators had amended an online-privacy bill for employees and job applicants so that it simply called for formation of a committee to study the issue. That didn't sit well with Sen. Peter Galbraith, a Townshend-based Democrat.

"To study it was to defer it," Galbraith said.

So he was part of a successful effort to further amend the bill so that it prohibits employers from requiring that job applicants turn over access to their personal computer, e-mail account or phone. Employers also cannot request access to an applicant's "personal documents, files, personal letters or diaries."

Galbraith said the bill does not protect current employees and does not cover access to social-media sites.

"I consider that a terrible shortcoming which I hope to correct," he said.

Mike Faher is the political beat writer at the Brattleboro Reformer. He can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.