Senators tackle opioids; controversy over adjournment votes

Sens. Sara Howard, left, Brett Lindstrom, center, and John Kuehn, right, chat after their opioid legislation advanced (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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February 26, 2018 - 5:27pm

Nebraska lawmakers took a step today to try and deal with opioid addiction, as well as toward changing how they run the Legislature.

In some ways, the Nebraska Legislature is like an extended family. And when senators get a recess day off from the pressure cooker in the Capitol, they get to go home and reconnect with their families at home.

But as Sen. Sara Howard described such a day in the life of her mother, former Sen. Gwen Howard, she took a somber turn. “In March 2009 during a long session, on my mother’s recess day, my mom and I were planning a funeral instead of my sister’s wedding. And we were cleaning out her house instead of helping her to build her home. And that is not fair,” Howard said.

On March 24, 2009, Howard’s sister Carrie died of an overdose of opioids. Howard said her sister had a series of car accidents and back surgeries, and was prescribed Oxycontin to deal with the pain. As Howard told it, things got out of control. “In the last five months of her life, Carrie was given over 4,500 narcotic pills – over 1,000 a month, and she didn’t make it through her last month,” she said, inviting sentoars to her office to see the pill bottles her mother saved. “It is jarring to know that was what went to one human being in the last five months of her life.”

Bottles for prescriptions Sen. Sara Howard says her sister Carrie got before dying of an overdose in March, 2009. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Howard introduced a bill to limit opioid prescriptions for children to seven days’ worth, with certain exceptions, such as for patients with cancer. The bill also includes provisions from Sen. Brett Lindstrom, requiring doctors notify patients about the risks of addictions and overdoses, and from Sen. John Kuehn, requiring identification to pick up prescription opiates. Howard is a Democrat while Lindstrom and Kuehn are Republicans in the officially nonpartisan Unicameral.

Kuehn says problems often start with drugs being overprescribed. “If we’re really going to get to the root cause of why people are becoming addicted to prescription painkillers and dying, we have to at some point talk about what’s happening in the exam room when pen hits prescription pad, and what happens beyond,” Kuehn said.

Sen. Robert Hilkemann asked Howard what would happen if a doctor failed to document that he warned a patient about the risks of addiction. “What could happen to the practitioner if someone ends up going on to be addicted? They go back and they look at their records and they say ‘You wrote this prescription and you didn’t put in your note that you talked to this person.’ What could happen to that practitioner?” he asked.

“That’s a good question, Howard replied. “We actually haven’t included any penalties in regards to this, she said, while acknowledging someone could sue the doctor over such an omission.

In her final statement before senators voted on the bill, Howard thanked senators for their support, noting that all 49 then in the Legislature, along with then-Gov. Dave Heineman, attended her sister’s funeral. And she paid tribute to her mother, who introduced legislation to tighten controls over prescriptions after her sister’s death. “I really want to thank my mom, who was talking about this issue before it was cool, right? In 2011, it was shameful that you had a child who died from an addiction. And while it’s sad, I don’t feel any shame, because it means that we’re doing something to help families in the future in our state,” she said.

Senators then voted 47-0 to give the bill the first of three approvals it needs before being sent to the governor.

In other business Monday, senators discussed changing the way they decide whether to adjourn. The discussion followed controversy last Friday, when Speaker Jim Scheer declared the body adjourned after a voice vote some interpreted as having gone the other way.

 Scheer has defended his judgment, and also argued that procedurally, there wasn’t enough time to finish debate on a voting rights provision that day. Scheer’s ruling Friday prompted an angry denunciation by Sen. Ernie Chambers. Monday, Chambers rejected Scheer’s argument about timing. “That’s what democracy’s about,” Chambers said. “One man should not be able to thwart the will of the body.”

Sen. Bob Krist also complained that on voice votes to adjourn, it has become kind of a standing joke among some senators to loudly vote against it. Krist recommended having senators vote using the machine they use for voting on bills, which displays the results on a voting board. “If were me sitting in that chair and (serving as) the Speaker, from now on the rest of the session we’d have a board vote on every recess and every adjournment, to see if you’re serious about sitting here through your lunch hour and carrying on the business of the people. Think about that for a second. And don’t make it a joke,” Krist lectured his colleagues.

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks reinforced Krist’s idea. “From here on, I think we’d better have a machine vote on adjournment. That way we don’t have to have it be determined by the loudness of the voices, or whether or not it really happened,” Pansing Brooks said.

Speaker Scheer said he’d give senators the opportunity to do it that way – but hoped they wouldn’t use it very much. “Upon adjournment motions, I will take an elongated time between the motion to see if those would like to have a machine vote. It would be my hope that we’re adults; that we would not have to do this on a daily basis,” Scheer said.

Scheer then asked if anyone wanted a machine vote on adjourning for the day. Pansing Brooks said she did. Senators then voted 31-3 to adjourn.







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