Island County’s opioid crisis was once again the leading issue on lawmakers’ plates when Congressman Rick Larsen laid out his legislative agenda to the Council of Governments on Wednesday.
Larsen, who is up for re-election, made an appearance to discuss his goals for the upcoming year, and opened the floor to feedback from county lawmakers. Although he covered a handful of priorities, the heroin and prescription drug abuse issue that has plagued the county came up numerous times in the meeting, and county officials made it clear there needs to be an immediate solution to curtail the crisis.
“It’s a problem that’s not just a federal issue and not just a state issue,” said Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor. “We need to work together to find some good solutions.”
Larsen said he recently met with law enforcement officials and the Island County Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition to get up to speed on the heroin epidemic before laying out measures Congress has taken to address the issue. He added the county has seen a 75 percent spike in opioid related deaths from 2004 to 2013.
The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) was at the forefront of Larsen’s points about what Congress is doing to fight the epidemic. The bill, which passed in March, reforms how the federal government can change the means of addressing the issue and how it can support states, local governments, law enforcement bodies and health care providers. The only catch is Congress still has to hash out the amount of funding the bill receives.
Larsen equated the situation to building a bucket first and filling it later.
“The point I want to make on this bill is this is one of those ‘watch this space’ issues,” Larsen said. “Things are going to happen. You can’t be a bystander. We have a lot of work ahead of us over the next couple of months before the new congress goes into session.”
Larsen said one way the bill addressed overdoses is by codifying a “grant program to expand law enforcement officials’ training with and access to overdose reversal drugs like Naloxone,” or Narcan. He that added law enforcement in the area have started using Narcan.
CARA also makes reforms to pain management prescription practices, addressing over-prescribing opioids and training those authorized to prescribe them.
“I think the funding for CARA is really important locally, and wherever we can add flexibility at the local level for treatment will go a long way,” county Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said.
Transit was another priority Larsen mentioned. He brought up the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST), a five-year bill that gives Washington about $3.6 billion for roads, bridges, highways and maintenance and approximately $1.2 billion additionally for the state’s transit systems.
Port of South Whidbey Commissioner Curt Gordon stressed the need for funding that would enable the construction of multi-modal systems to shorten the waiting lines on the Clinton-Mukilteo ferry route, but was unsure if Washington State Ferries prioritized passenger loading rather than prioritizing cars. Price Johnson and Bailey also stressed Washington State Ferries’ need for federal monies.
Larsen also said he prioritized improving veteran services and continuing his support of Naval Air Station Whidbey. He pointed to his work done in Congress to pass the Wounded Warriors Federal Leave Act last year that gives veterans a number of leave hours up front during their first year of employment. The bill was passed to help veterans deal with circumstances that result from a disability developed from their service. Larsen also backed up his support for veterans by pointing out Congress lifted a 1992 ban on vitro fertilization services for active duty military personnel and veterans.
“I can imagine most of these folks signed up knowing it would be possible they’d lose their life,” Larsen said. “I doubt any of them figured when they signed up they could lose the ability to give life.”
Additionally, providing the means to train the next generation’s work force was described as a “long term priority” for Larsen. One of the means to do so, in Larsen’s eyes, is to expand apprenticeship programs. He added while both the state and country have plenty of trade-based apprenticeships, they lack the apprenticeship programs in fields like computer science and health care that other countries have.