N.H. drug abuse panel mulls millions for enforcement, monitoring

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CONCORD, N.H. — New Hampshire would raid some dedicated funds to spend more than $3.5 million beefing up law enforcement and upgrading the state's prescription drug monitoring program as part of an effort to combat the growing heroin abuse problem.

At a hearing Monday, the finance division of the legislative Substance Abuse Task Force heard proposals to spend $2.25 million to put more police officers on the streets who would focus on drug investigations.

State Police Col. Robert Quinn said the $1.5 million earmarked for fiscal year 2017 would equal more than 2,800 patrol shifts across the state. The balance of $750,000 would be applied to the second half of the 2016 budget year.

Grants would be made available to local departments that could use the money to beef up patrols by providing some matching funds. Robert Cormier, chief of the Tilton Police Department and president of the state's Association of Chiefs of Police, said departments would benefit from the additional manpower.

"This gives them the ability to put some staff on the problem," Cormier said.

Heroin and opiate overdoses have killed more than 300 people in New Hampshire this year, emergency room visits related to heroin are up 70 percent for the first nine months of 2015 compared to the same period in 2014 and drug deaths are outpacing the number of people killed in car accidents. The task force was created after Gov. Maggie Hassan called for a special session to address the substance abuse issue. Beyond prescription monitoring and expanded law enforcement, Hassan wants to create more drug courts and streamline access to treatment and recovery.

The panel also considered whether to spend $1.2 million to buy 27 state police cruisers. To pay for the cars, the proposal would take $300,000 from the state's highway fund, $274,200 from the turnpike fund and $625,800 from general funds.

Asked by Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley to prioritize the spending — extra police officers or extra cars — Quinn told the Wolfeboro Republican: "That's a tough question.

"There's a crisis, and people are dying," Quinn said.

On another front, the panel considered spending $100,000 to upgrade the computer system that runs the state's prescription drug monitoring program in preparation for making it mandatory. The monitoring program is intended to cut down on overprescribing painkillers by identifying patients who shop for doctors or pharmacies to feed an opioid addiction problem.

Data provided by the Office of Professional Licensure and Certification showed huge spikes in the number of queries when states went from voluntary to mandatory reporting: In Kentucky, the number of history reports requested went from 811,000 in 2011 to 2.7 million when it became mandatory in 2012, an increase of 230 percent. New Hampshire's voluntary system had more than 20,000 hits in October, and program managers said there "certainly" would be an increase if reporting is mandatory.

The finance panel is expected to report back to the full task force on Dec. 15. Lawmakers want to have bills ready to vote on when they convene in January.


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