On Monday, the Alaska House passed a bill to limit initial opioid prescriptions to a seven-day supply.


House Bill 159 is part of a push from Governor Bill Walker’s administration to address the state’s growing opioid epidemic, which Walker declared a disaster in February.


While members of the House spent nearly four hours debating the measure, it was relatively non-controversial in the medical community. In fact, several provider networks– like the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association and the Alaska Dental Society– were already working on creating their own guidelines for opioid prescriptions and information-sharing databases.


HB 159 takes that a step further by creating a voluntary nonopioid directive, where a patient can make it clear that they don’t want to be prescribed opioids. It also requires continuing education for providers on opioid abuse, it limits initial prescriptions to a seven-day supply, and it will eventually require providers and pharmacies to update the controlled substance prescription database daily.


Because the healthcare industry was already developing some of the provisions on its own, debate on the House floor Monday focused on what the state’s role in a solution should be.


Prescription drugs are ground zero for Alaska’s opioid epidemic– most addictions start not on street corner but in medicine cabinets. So, that’s where lawmakers like Representative Ivy Spohnholz (D-Anchorage), chair of the Health and Social Services Committee, wants to start addressing the problem.


Spohnholz was a supporter of HB 159 as a way to give doctors new tools to ensure they are making the right decisions for their patients.


“One of the things that we found was that doctors didn’t always have the best information in front of them and so they weren’t making the most informed decisions that they possibly could,” Spohnholz said in an interview Monday.


Spohnholz says last year, two-thirds of the state’s opioid deaths were from prescription drugs.


“We’re not talking about black market street drugs, we’re talking about regular, everyday people who were not choosing to become addicted but did, and died as a result– that’s very serious,” Spohnholz added.


Jeannie Monk, vice president of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association (ASHNHA) supports the bill because she says the Association was already working on ways to address the state’s opioid epidemic.


“Even separate from this legislation, there was already an agreement that prescribing smaller doses was and that patients need to be connected to their own personal doctor, not rely on an emergency room for their care,” Monk said Monday. “That’s something we’ll continue work on outside of the legislature.”


That’s precisely why lawmakers like Representative Tammie Wilson say the state may not need to get involved.


“I’m very concerned when the legislature starts pretending they’re a doctor, you know, I’m not a doctor, I don’t have their training,” Wilson said in an interview.


Wilson calls the measure government overreach and worries the legislature will end up over-regulating prescriptions.


“Are we next going to go into people’s homes and force them to give up anything older than a month or two months? How far do you overreach before you finally say enough’s enough, and for me, this is enough,” Wilson said.


Lawmakers and doctors can both agree that limiting prescriptions alone is not enough to solve the epidemic.


Passage of HB 159 is likely the only public action lawmakers will take this week, the first full week of the special session. So far, there are no other bills scheduled.