Home Archived Articles Anne Arundel County Political Analysis: Opioid Epidemic Produces Bipartisan Cooperation

Anne Arundel County Political Analysis: Opioid Epidemic Produces Bipartisan Cooperation

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Uncompromising partisanship dominates Washington these days, but at the Maryland State House, there is plenty of bipartisan cooperation on tough issues.

Last month, Democratic House Speaker Michael Busch and Republican Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh jointly sponsored an opioid summit to emphasize local efforts and statewide legislation, and to battle the growing overdose deaths.

As part of the two-hour summit in a House hearing room, Del. Eric Bromwell (D-Baltimore County), chair of the House’s Opioid Workgroup, and House Minority Leader Nic Kipke, of Pasadena, a workgroup member, described what the House passed last year. The workgroup melded 30 bills on opioids into the Heroin and Opioid Prevention (HOPE) Act, and some of the measures are just going into effect, Kipke said.

“We’re going to try to do everything we can to address these problems,” Bromwell said. “This touches every single person here.”

“Working together is the only way we’ll curb the opioid epidemic,” said Busch. “Last year, the General Assembly and Anne Arundel County took big steps to save lives and prevent addiction, but we’ve got a long way to go. That’s why it’s so important to continue to bring leaders and communities together to share best practices and plan our next steps.”

Third in Opioid Deaths

The most shocking figure about Anne Arundel County is that it ranks third in the state for the number of opioid-related deaths, after Baltimore City (628) and Baltimore County (305). In 2016 (the last year full figures for every county are available), Anne Arundel had 169 deaths related to opioids ­ which include heroin, fentanyl and prescription pain killers. That was nearly double the number from 2015, and is far more deaths than in each of the state’s two largest jurisdictions; Montgomery County had 84 deaths, and yet has twice the population of Anne Arundel’s 564,000 people; Prince George’s County had 106 deaths and 341,000 more people. (Howard County had 40 deaths.)

Last year, Anne Arundel County had 154 fatal overdoses and 929 nonfatal overdoses.

If that many people were dying in Anne Arundel County from car crashes or the flu, “we would be horrified, shocked,” said Schuh, who had declared a heroin crisis in the first month of his administration, “yet many of us don’t even notice.”

Schuh noted that 80% of the use of heroin and the other, even more lethal drugs mixed with it “started with a legitimate prescription from a doctor.”

Doctors are now getting trained to reduce the number of pain pills they prescribe, and there is a new database they can check to see if patients are getting prescriptions from other doctors. Kipke said this has led to a 14% reduction in the amount of painkillers prescribed last year, following a 13% reduction the year before.

But as doctors decline to prescribe refills, in the short term this may push patients to purchase street drugs, like heroin.

A map of the county’s opioid deaths shows them clustered in the north, where the county borders Baltimore, and the supply may be greater from a city that had a heroin epidemic decades before it hit the suburbs.

Police, Fire, Lawsuit

The county’s police chief, fire chief, deputy health officer and the head of the crisis response system testified to showcase Anne Arundel’s efforts at increased cooperation and coordination to provide prevention and treatment.

They’ve included Safe Stations, where someone using opioids can go into any fire station and request immediate help and treatment the EMTs have now been trained to provide.

Anyone who has overdosed gets a letter from Schuh and Police Chief Tim Altomare “begging them to get into treatment,” Altomare said. The chief has also set up a fatal overdose detective unit to investigate who sold the drugs that led to the death.

Finally, in January, like a growing number of states and counties across the country, Anne Arundel County filed a lawsuit naming 25 defendants including manufacturers, distributors and overprescribing doctors.

While they’ve had some sharp policy differences, Busch and Schuh are no strangers to cooperation. Republican Schuh was a member of the House of Delegates for eight years, and Busch has been the county’s administrator for youth athletics for decades. They often appear at events together.

Feud With Walker

While Schuh has a good working relationship with the Democratic speaker ­ who can help the county in many ways, ­ he continues to knock heads with at least one member of his own party, County Councilmember Jerry Walker.

In a late December interview, I asked Schuh if he thought he could maintain the 4-3 Republican majority on the county council.

“We don’t have a majority in the county council,” Schuh said, flatly. Jerry Walker “functions more like a Democrat than a Republican. He votes with the Democrats 62% of the time.”

Since Anne Arundel County has a two-term limit for county councilmembers and Walker is fulfilling his second term, he’s now running for the House of Delegates in District 33, which already has a full complement of three Republican incumbents: Tony McConkey, Sid Saab and Michael Malone.

Schuh’s million-dollar campaign chest helped fund mailers by the House Republican Caucus in November that depicted Walker as a clown.

“I’m involved in everything,” said Schuh. “I have to be.”

“The Republican Party cannot afford to have of its members acting like a Democrat. It would be disastrous for Anne Arundel County, it would be disastrous for the Republican Party,” given the 8-7 split in the county’s House delegation.

But other Republicans, including incumbent delegates, were unhappy to see a fellow Republican attacked so harshly, even if he was trying to unseat a fellow Republican.

Walker said he has had a rocky relationship with Schuh since Walker was a member of the Republican Central Committee, even serving as the county’s GOP chair for two years.

Since Schuh became executive, “I voted with him 92.6% of the time,” said Walker. “I looked at every bill” over the last three years.

The majority of administration bills from Schuh pass the council unanimously. Schuh’s figures are based on those few bills where the council is split, but Walker said that in “in half of those bills I was joined by another Republican.”

Walker, who represents the South County, has repeatedly clashed with Schuh over development and fiscal issues.

“What he wants is 100% loyalty,” Walker said.

“He’s increased the debt 64%,” raising the county’s debt ceiling from $125 million to $205 million. Most recently, Walker opposed Schuh on tax breaks for the Live! Casino at Arundel Mills, which passed with Democratic and Republican councilmembers on both sides of the issue.

Walker is currently president of the Maryland Association of Counties, a position which alternates between Republican and Democratic local office holders.

Cain for Delegate

The race for the two delegate seats in Annapolis-area District 30A is getting more crowded. Currently represented by Democratic House Speaker Michael Busch and Republican Herb McMillan, an American Airlines pilot, Republicans and Democrats are angling to claim both seats.

The newest entry is Democrat Alice Cain, who calls herself “an education policy wonk.” Her campaign launch party last month featured the endorsement of the state Democratic Party’s shining star of the moment, progressive Gavin Buckley, the newly elected Democratic mayor of Annapolis who unseated incumbent Republican Mike Pantelides.

Cain becomes the fifth Democrat in the race. Besides Busch, Democrat Mary Reese, a 2006 U.S. Naval Academy (USNA) graduate running on an environmental platform, filed last month; as did Brooks Schandelmeier, 27, vice president of the District 30 Democratic club; and Aron Axe, a retired Marine officer and also a USNA graduate, with progressive policy stands.

Republicans Chelsea Gill, 25, the youngest candidate in the race, and Dr. Mark Plaster, a physician who ran for Congress against Rep. John Sarbanes in 2016, have also filed.

McMillan has yet to announce his plans. Republican leaders have been urging the maverick delegate to run for his seat again, and not challenge former Del. Ron George for Senate. The GOP hopes to claim the seat long represented by Democrat John Astle, who has yet to decide whether he will seek a seventh four-year term.