Gov. Larry Hogan authorized Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh to sue opioid manufacturers and distributors as part of several anti-opioid initiatives announced Tuesday.
Hogan directed Frosh to sue on the grounds that opioid manufacturers and distributors misled the public and helped create the current addiction crisis, but his move set off a political war of words.
“As the first governor in the country to declare a true state of emergency in response to the opioid epidemic, I am committed to doing everything in our power to bring those responsible for this scourge to justice and prevent future victims,” Hogan said in a statement.
But Frosh bristled at the idea that Hogan directed him to do anything, saying he had already requested authorization for the lawsuit.
“The Consumer Protection Division is already involved in ongoing investigations and actions against manufacturers and distributors of opioids,” Frosh said in a statement. “We have multiple attorneys working tirelessly to advance these efforts. Our Criminal Division has prioritized combating the heroin epidemic by focusing on dismantling the most dangerous drug organizations across the state.”
But resources from Hogan’s office have been scarce, limiting Frosh’s ability to pursue these issues, he said.
We simply do not have sufficient resources, however, given the enormity and urgency of this effort,” Frosh said. “To continue to wage war against this epidemic, the Office of Attorney General requested four additional positions—two in our Consumer Protection Division and two in our Criminal Division. Our request was denied by the Governor.”
But Hogan’s administration believes Frosh has the resources and is not using them, including money in the Consumer Protection Unit Fund.
“The Attorney General’s office has 36 vacant positions (including many more in state agencies) and he has the ability to move these positions around to best suit his needs,” said Douglass Mayer, a spokesperson for the governor. “Instead of wasting his staff’s (and everyone else’s) time complaining about verb semantics, he should focus more of his energy on helping us combat the opioid crisis.”
Frosh’s office said those positions have been kept vacant to comply with the governor’s budget or are in the process of recruitment.
The state would join local jurisdictions, including Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford and Montgomery counties, that have sued or announced plans to sue manufacturers for their role in the opioid crisis.
Hogan asked that the proceeds from any lawsuit be used for “innovative and new opioid treatment, prevention and education programs.”
The governor also announced his support for several initiatives he says will help treat addiction, prevent overdoses and increase enforcement efforts.
One possible treatment plan would convert part of the former Baltimore City Men’s Detention Center into a therapeutic detention facility that would provide treatment for those incarcerated with substance use disorders as well as other behavioral health issues. Hogan said his administration would conduct a study looking at the possibility of converting the jail he ordered closed three years ago.
Around 60 percent of those jailed in Baltimore have a substance use disorder and 30 percent have a mental illness, the administration said.
But Baltimore City Health Commissioner Leana Wen said a study is not needed to start treating the jailed population. She said available forms of medically assisted treatment should be used in jails starting immediately for anyone who needs it.
“I’m glad that Governor Hogan has mentioned the need for addiction treatment in our jails,” she said. “(Medically assisted treatment) can be done now without the need for a study or a separate facility.”
The administration also submitted legislation that could make it easier to provide health care for substance use disorders. They include removing the requirement for a certificate of need for capital projects for inpatient treatment and allowing work experience to satisfy certification requirements for drug and alcohol counselors.
Another bill introduced by the administration would allow first responders to input and share opioid overdose data. Maryland would be the 27th state to use technology for this purpose, the administration said.
The governor’s anti-opioid announcement comes a week after he released his 2019 budget, which included funding for the opioid crisis. The budget included $159 million for non-Medicaid substance use disorder and addiction programs; $13.7 million for the state’s opioid epidemic response; and $3 million for local education programs.
The Baltimore City Health Department has not received guidance on what those funds will be spent on, but Wen said she hopes it goes towards initiatives she has told Hogan will work.
“We in Baltimore City know what works when it comes to stemming the tide in our city,” Wen said. “We have advocated to the governor’s office directly about funding us in the areas that we know we need help in the most.”
In the first half of 2017, there were nearly 1,200 opioid overdose deaths in Maryland. More than three-quarters of those deaths were related to the synthetic opioid fentanyl. In Baltimore, Wen said, two deaths a day are related to overdoses.