By Kevin Landrigan

Republican candidate for governor Ted Gatsas said ending the opioid epidemic is a balance between getting help to those who need it while cracking down harder on those responsible for deadly drugs becoming more available and affordable in New Hampshire.

That's why the Manchester mayor made a cornerstone out of his Safe Station initiative -- offering aid in all city firehouses to addicts that come off the street to get help.

"If people are going to come to you for help on their own, that means they are truly ready to get help," Gatsas, 56, said during an interview at the New Hampshire Union Leader.
"This is not a silver bullet; there's an opportunity here to help people."

Since its start on May 4, 377 people have gotten assistance. Gatsas acknowledged he would be holding a second meeting today with city safety officials to address concerns that the program is too taxing on local first responders.

Gatsas opposes the 2015 Good Samaritan law that makes immune from prosecution anyone illegally using drugs who reports an overdose.

"That doesn't make sense to me; there should be a penalty," Gatsas said.

And if elected, the Manchester native said he would overhaul criminal laws to make the illegal sale of fentanyl a more serious felony, and subject a person who supplied the drug that caused someone's death to a possible life sentence without parole.

"We've got to get serious about sending this tougher message when it comes to punishment," Gatsas said.

Gatsas is not impressed with the proposal from one primary rival, state Sen. Jeanie Forrester, R-Meredith, to call out the National Guard to patrol the Canadian border for illegal drug sales.

"I would not be for that; it doesn't make any sense at all," Gatsas said. "You can't enforce all of the borders to Canada from New Hampshire, give me a break."

And Gatsas said he won't accept criticism from another GOP foe, Executive Councilor Chris Sununu, R-Newfields, who has charged that Gatsas failed to do enough early on to spot this spike in drug overdoses.

"I have been talking about it for over a year and a half. When people say that he has no leadership, it is all about politics," Gatsas said.

The Manchester Republican said in his first week as governor, he would declare the epidemic a state of emergency.

Gatsas said it's taken much too long to get state money to battle the epidemic.

"Five million was approved last November and it still hasn't all gone out yet," Gatsas said. "That's wrong; that's a lack of leadership."

While some GOP foes want to do away with Medicaid expansion under Obamacare, Gatsas said he'd look for a "New Hampshire solution" in part because just pulling coverage for low-income adults is not practical.

"To just say we are going to take away from 50,000 people health care coverage who have it is going to end up throwing all these people into emergency rooms," Gatsas said. "Let's find a New Hampshire solution and let's get that done."

One part would be to give those on Medicaid a financial incentive to pick the lowest-cost health provider to do a medical procedure, he said.

Gatsas would support restoring commuter rail from Concord to Boston only if he sees a financially feasible plan that doesn't force local taxpayers to pick up the tab.

"Nothing that I have seen is firm," Gatsas said.

After seven years on the job, Gatsas said his low point came on May 13 when Manchester patrolmen Ryan Hardy and Matthew O'Connor were shot by Ian MacPherson, a man with a history of mental illness.

"That is the worst phone call I can ever recall getting," Gatsas said.
"This incident should not have happened. He had a gun; he had a mental illness and he had no business having one."

Anyone judged to be mentally ill should be reported to the criminal background check system and denied a handgun, Gatsas said.

On abortion rights, Gatsas said he supports a woman's reproductive freedom but is also in favor of state laws that ban late-term abortions, require parental notification of a minor girl's abortion and prevent minors from getting the so-called morning after pill.

(c)2016 The New Hampshire Union Leader (Manchester, N.H.)