By Ian Duncan

Amid mounting overdose deaths, Gov. Larry Hogan pledged Wednesday to spend an extra $10 million a year to battle Maryland's problem with heroin and prescription pill abuse.

The Republican governor also declared a state of emergency because of the epidemic, which officials believe led to some 2,000 overdose deaths last year.

"We need to treat this crisis the exact same way we treat any other state emergency," Hogan said at a news conference at the Maryland Emergency Management Agency. "This is actually about taking an all-hands-on-deck approach so that together we can save the lives of thousands of Marylanders.

"As this crisis evolves, so must our response to it."

Hogan said the emergency declaration would allow authorities across the state to "cut through the red tape" while the extra money would give teams more flexibility to address what he called "the rapid escalation of the heroin and opioid crisis in our state."

The $10 million in new funding -- which Hogan said will be available every year for five years -- is a significant boost over the $122 million the state had budgeted for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to treat substance use problems in the next fiscal year.

The announcement comes as addiction treatment advocates and others have called for more resources to try to get the problem under control.

Final 2016 numbers are expected to show that some 2,000 people died from heroin and other opiate overdoses in Maryland last year. That's double the number from 2015. The rising death toll has been driven by fentanyl, a cheap and powerful synthetic opioid that dealers are increasingly blending into regular heroin.

Del. Eric Bromwell, who is leading a work group crafting a legislative package to address the crisis, said the additional funding is welcome and could give lawmakers in the General Assembly more options.

"We're all working together and funding is going to be the No. 1 issue for a lot of what we want to get done," the Baltimore County Democrat said.

Hogan announced a package of measures in January to address overdose deaths, including a bill to put limits on how many opiate painkillers doctors could prescribe to patients on an initial pain consultation and another to impose stiff penalties on drug dealers who supply deadly drugs. Hogan also signed an executive order creating a command center to coordinate efforts between different agencies. He said it was that group's early work that showed the need to declare a state of emergency.

"It became clear that in order to expedite the mobilization of our statewide response and to build on momentum already underway, we needed greater flexibility to engage our local partners and to be able to activate emergency teams in jurisdictions across the state," the governor said.

Hogan also announced Wednesday that he had appointed Clay Stamp, a veteran emergency management official, to lead the state's efforts to combat the heroin problem. Stamp ran MEMA during the rioting that broke out in Baltimore after the funeral of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old who died in police custody in April 2015.

Aides to the governor said Stamp would have a role in determining how the new money is spent.

It's not clear how emergency powers that are more often invoked to deal with major storms will be used to battle a chronic problem like drug addiction. Stamp said in an interview that he planned to spend the next couple of weeks drawing up a list of objectives but acknowledged that right now his ideas are "still squishy."

Dr. Leana Wen, the health commissioner for Baltimore, said the governor's emergency declaration was a reflection of the scale of the public health problem posed by heroin abuse in Maryland. Wen said she hopes the new money is directed to places like Baltimore, which has been especially hard hit by the epidemic.

"To move the needle across the state we have to focus on the areas that are hardest hit," she said. "We also hope that the governor will focus the bulk of the funding towards treatment. The reason is: We know addiction is a disease, treatment exists and recovery is possible."

Between federal and state funding for the health department and Medicaid, Maryland budgeted $538 million to treat substance abuse next year.

The state faces the loss of $215 million a year for treating drug use through Medicaid if the Affordable Care Act is repealed. Republican President Donald Trump and Congress have pledged to repeal the law, commonly called Obamacare.

Hogan said he raised that issue in a meeting with Vice President Mike Pence and other top Trump administration officials over the weekend when he visited Washington for the National Governors Association conference.

"I think some of that resulted in some of the comments the president made last night in his speech, where he said that they're going to make sure that the states are made whole and they're not going to let anybody be thrown off the rolls," Hogan said, referring to an address Trump made Tuesday to a joint session of Congress.

Bromwell and Del. Nic Kipke, the Republican minority leader and a member of the work group, said they're striving to be nonpartisan as they debate how to respond to the crisis.

But the Democratic Party injected politics into the issue Wednesday, releasing a statement in response to Hogan's announcement questioning why he was only now declaring a state of emergency despite pledging to do so during the 2014 campaign.

"It took two years and 2,600 deaths for Governor Larry Hogan to finally follow through on what he promised to do on day one," the statement read.

(c)2017 The Baltimore Sun