The Opioid Crisis Collides With Politics in New Hampshire

In a high-stakes Senate contest, Kelly Ayotte and Maggie Hassan are both eager to take credit for fighting an epidemic.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte
AP Photo/Jim Cole
May 12, 2016, 8 p.m.

New Hamp­shire has be­come a mi­cro­cosm of the opioid epi­dem­ic—both on the ground, as the state’s drug-over­dose fatal­ity rate is es­pe­cially high, and on the cam­paign trail, where du­el­ing Sen­ate can­did­ates are scram­bling to ad­dress the prob­lem and take cred­it for try­ing to fix it.

The pre­scrip­tion paink­iller and heroin epi­dem­ic has hit Amer­ica on a na­tion­al scale. Ad­voc­ates on the ground and in Wash­ing­ton are mo­bil­iz­ing, and Con­gress is com­batting it with le­gis­la­tion. Talk of the epi­dem­ic has seeped in­to cam­paigns at all levels—mul­tiple pres­id­en­tial hope­fuls spoke out in New Hamp­shire on the im­pact of ad­dic­tion on their loved ones.

The top­ic has been par­tic­u­larly sa­li­ent in tough Sen­ate races, such as the con­test between Sen. Kelly Ayotte and Gov. Mag­gie Has­san in New Hamp­shire, where nearly 45 per­cent of adults cite drug ab­use as the state’s top prob­lem.

Tra­di­tion­ally known for plaguing low-in­come, urb­an areas, this re­cent crisis has seen the drug spread to sub­urb­an and rur­al Amer­ica. A high per­cent­age of new users are white—as is 94 per­cent of New Hamp­shire’s pop­u­la­tion—and it’s one of five states with the highest rates of drug-over­dose fatal­it­ies. From 2013 to 2014, the rate of over­dose deaths in­creased 73.5 per­cent in the state, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion.

So how much has Ayotte done from her Sen­ate perch to com­bat the prob­lem? De­pends whom you ask.

The Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee has ac­cused Ayotte of dis­tort­ing her re­cord on sub­stance ab­use; mean­while, the con­ser­vat­ive non­profit One Na­tion launched a more-than-$1 mil­lion ad buy show­cas­ing the Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­or’s bi­par­tis­an work on it.

Ayotte’s pro­ponents point to a lengthy list of ac­tions: She was one of the ori­gin­al co­spon­sors of the Sen­ate’s Com­pre­hens­ive Ad­dic­tion and Re­cov­ery Act, a bi­par­tis­an bill that passed the up­per cham­ber in a sweep­ing 94 to 1 vote. She was one of a hand­ful of Re­pub­lic­ans to sup­port get­ting past a pro­ced­ur­al hurdle to provide $600 mil­lion in emer­gency fund­ing for the opioid epi­dem­ic, an amend­ment offered by her Demo­crat­ic New Hamp­shire col­league. And Ayotte has in­tro­duced and sponsored sev­er­al bills fo­cused on pre­ven­tion, edu­ca­tion, treat­ment, and re­cov­ery.  

“Kelly has been work­ing with loc­al stake­hold­ers and mem­bers of both parties for the past few years on mul­tiple pro­pos­als to ad­dress the opioid-ab­use epi­dem­ic,” Ayotte cam­paign spokes­wo­man Liz John­son wrote in an email. She ad­ded: “Our cam­paign will con­tin­ue to high­light Kelly’s lead­er­ship in bring­ing people to­geth­er to find solu­tions that will help save lives.”

The DSCC sent out a press re­lease in Janu­ary at­tack­ing Ayotte’s “reck­less re­cord,” say­ing she “sup­por­ted the Ry­an budget that threatened ma­jor cuts to sub­stance-ab­use pro­grams, voted to re­peal man­dated cov­er­age of sub­stance-ab­use treat­ment and to end Medi­caid ex­pan­sion in New Hamp­shire.”

“These are sen­at­ors who have had an en­tire term to move on this is­sue,” DSCC spokes­wo­man Lauren Pas­sa­lac­qua told Na­tion­al Journ­al, “and it’s in­ter­est­ing that it took a couple months be­fore Novem­ber for them to act on something that’s been build­ing for a really long time and when they haven’t ne­ces­sar­ily taken every step they could have to either pre­vent the crisis or ad­dress the crisis, and I think that’s something voters will have to con­sider.”

The is­sue has also seeped in­to state polit­ics, and that’s where Has­san comes in. She’s served as a Demo­crat­ic gov­ernor for three years in a state where Re­pub­lic­ans won con­trol of the le­gis­lature in 2014. Her pro­ponents note that Has­san pushed to pass and then reau­thor­ize the state’s Medi­caid ex­pan­sion. She helped ex­pand ac­cess to the opioid over­dose-re­versal drug. And she called for a spe­cial ses­sion to com­bat the epi­dem­ic, which res­ul­ted in the pas­sage of two bi­par­tis­an bills.

But Ry­an Wil­li­ams, an ad­visor to the New Hamp­shire Re­pub­lic­an Party, called the spe­cial ses­sion “es­sen­tially win­dow dress­ing.” He ad­ded: “She does not have a good re­cord on the is­sue. She was asleep at the switch [for] a num­ber of months as the crisis spiraled out of con­trol.”

Has­san caught flack in tele­vi­sion and di­git­al ads from a con­ser­vat­ive-is­sue ad­vocacy group, Cit­izens for a Strong New Hamp­shire. It ac­cused Has­san of “hold­ing new fund­ing for drug pre­ven­tion, treat­ment, and re­cov­ery host­age” a few months after the gov­ernor ve­toed the Re­pub­lic­an le­gis­lature’s budget. The ad re­ceived cri­ti­cism from Pro­fes­sion­al Fire Fight­ers of New Hamp­shire; The Nashua Tele­graph and; nat­ur­ally, the New Hamp­shire Demo­crat­ic Party, which called it “a base­less at­tack ad politi­ciz­ing New Hamp­shire’s heroin epi­dem­ic.”

“Gov­ernor Has­san has been clear that the sub­stance-ab­use epi­dem­ic is the num­ber one pub­lic health and safety chal­lenge fa­cing our state,” Has­san cam­paign spokes­man Aaron Jac­obs wrote in an email, “and she has taken a com­pre­hens­ive ap­proach to com­bat­ing this crisis that in­cludes sup­port­ing law en­force­ment while strength­en­ing pre­ven­tion, treat­ment, and re­cov­ery ef­forts.”

At­tack­ing an op­pon­ent’s re­cord on such a sens­it­ive is­sue can be tricky, and could come with a back­lash. Both can­did­ates have been “sound­ing the alarm” on the opioid epi­dem­ic for years, an ed­it­or­i­al from the Keene Sen­tinel said, and us­ing it for polit­ic­al gain is “shame­ful.”

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