The state Assembly passed a package of nine bills earlier this month to combat drug abuse and addiction, but Democrats tried and failed to pass multiple amendments to the legislation, including one to accept federal funding of Medicaid expansion.
State Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), a lead backer of the bills, said the legislation would have a great impact, particularly in fighting the state's prescription opioid epidemic.
"We've focused our efforts on expanding treatment and diversion programs, improving access to wide-ranging addiction medicine opportunities, and partnering with law enforcement to fight drug trafficking," Nygren said.
The Assembly bills were recommended to Gov. Scott Walker by Nygren and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, the co-chairman and co-chairwoman, respectively, of the Governor's Task Force on Opioid Abuse.
Among the measures passed were bills to create a state-funded charter school for recovering addicts, to continue funding for treatment and diversion programs, and to enlarge graduate medical training grants in addiction specialties.
Assembly majority leader Rep. Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) emphasized three other votes he took the same day, which he said would expand access to health care in the state.
"Supporting health-care providers and providing them with flexible options to better serve different areas of Wisconsin was the bottom line of these bills," Steineke said. "We're working to give them the tools they need to deliver the best care to their patients."
The bills would allow dental hygienists to practice without dental supervision in specific locations, provide guidelines and standards for Community EMS programs, and allow properly trained individuals to be prescribed an Epi-Pen.
"Something as simple as a bee sting can have deadly effects if left to its own devices," Steineke said. "Allowing more people to access Epi-Pens will help decrease allergy-related deaths and emergency room visits, especially for our rural communities."
Steineke said it was critical to provide rural areas of Wisconsin more options when it comes to emergency services.
But Steineke had harsh words for Democrats who called for accepting federal funding for Medicaid expansion. He was particularly incensed over a fundraising email sent by the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee during the day's floor debate.
"Right now, Assembly Democrats are fighting for us in Madison," the Democratic email stated. "They're in the Assembly Chambers asking their Republican colleagues to do what is right and bring Wisconsin tax dollars back to our state to fund healthcare for families and children who desperately need it."
Democratic exhortations - and the various amendments - failed, and Steineke said they were obviously laced with overtly partisan motives, given the fundraising appeal.
"Today showed both the best and the worst sides of the Assembly," he said. "Today's session was meant to be focused on saving lives. Members of both parties have had ample opportunities to submit serious amendments, yet Assembly Democrats have decided to deliberately break faith in order to coordinate fundraising off of less-than-honest amendments. The Assembly Democrats have hijacked these bipartisan and noble bills for personal gains. It is despicable, and all those involved should be ashamed."
One of those Democrats, Rep. Lisa Subeck (D- Madison), supported the package of legislation to address the opioid epidemic but said she had concerns about the majority party's failure to address the larger issue of access to quality, affordable health care.
"The opioid epidemic in Wisconsin is a crisis worth tackling, and the legislation passed by the Assembly today is a step in the right direction," Subeck said. "Before we all give ourselves a big bipartisan pat on the back, it is important to recognize that Republicans have failed to show any willingness to address the bigger issue of affordable health care. We will not solve our opioid epidemic or any other significant health crisis until Republicans put politics aside and follow the lead of 31 other states that have accepted federal funding to expand Medicaid."
By accepting federal Medicaid expansion funds and expanding BadgerCare, Wisconsin could substantially increase access to treatment services for people with substance abuse disorders, Subeck said.
More than 1.2 million people in 31 states that have already expanded Medicaid are now able to obtain needed treatment, Subeck said, and expanded health care access would not only provide access to treatment but also to critical preventative care, including the ability to regularly see a physician who can ensure that appropriate medications are prescribed and are being taken as directed.
Subeck said the state will have forsaken $700 million in federal funding by the end of June that could have been used to help Wisconsin address the opioid epidemic and access to other health care services.
"Small steps matter, but Wisconsin's opioid epidemic will not go away until we take decisive action to expand access to preventative health care and addiction treatment," she said. "That is why I - and many of my Democratic colleagues - called on our Republican colleagues during today's floor session to accept federal Medicaid expansion funds and seize this critical opportunity to expand access to quality and affordable treatment and prevention options."
Despite the partisan rancor, the opioid legislation did have bipartisan support, and Wisconsin Medical Society president Barbara Hummel praised the Assembly's actions.
"Wisconsin physicians applaud the Wisconsin State Assembly for approving another round of HOPE Agenda legislation that will help fight opioid abuse," Hummel said. "Today's action advances important initiatives that will help in a wide variety of ways, including support for treatment and diversion programs, bolstering the state's addiction health care work force and creating an addiction medicine consultation program to make this specialty care more widely available. Rep. John Nygren's strategy to attack the opioids problem on a variety of fronts continues to be thoughtful, nonpartisan and tireless."
Hummel said the collaboration among physicians, health care professionals, the Legislature, Gov. Walker and law enforcement continues to provide Wisconsin with the greatest opportunity to successfully fight the opioid and other drug abuse crisis.
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