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Gov. Tom Wolf pleads for continued opioid crisis disaster declaration; legislation to aid pregnant workers, ban deepfakes in the works

Gov. Tom Wolf failed last week in a push to extend the state’s opioid disaster declaration, while prosecutors ramped up pressure to ensure drug companies can be punished for their role in the crisis.

The governor pressed lawmakers last week to return from their summer recess to extend the disaster declaration, which is set to expire in less than three weeks. The declaration — which grants the state certain powers to deal with the yearslong opioid crisis — only lasts 21 days since voters approved strict limits on the governor’s emergency powers this year.

“As we see a spike in overdoses throughout the commonwealth, there has never been a more important time to concentrate our efforts in helping individuals with substance use disorder, especially opioid use disorder,” Wolf said Wednesday in a statement asking for lawmakers to extend the emergency.

A day later, GOP leaders said they wouldn’t approve an extension, meaning the state will soon no longer grant emergency powers to handle the crisis.

More than 5,000 Pennsylvanians died from drug overdoses last year, according to preliminary data from Wolf’s office. That’s a significant increase from 2019 and the most deaths in a year since 2017.

Some of the powers Wolf employed under the declaration have since been shifted to other agencies, although the declaration still allows the state to collect and share information on patients’ controlled drug prescriptions.

Wolf isn’t the only official pressing his counterparts to act on the crisis. The Philadelphia district attorney sued state Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office last month to ensure a case against drug distributors and manufacturers can go to trial; his Allegheny County counterpart did the same last week.

“The victims of this opioid crisis and the people of Allegheny County would best be served by having these matters decided by a jury in Allegheny County,” District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. said in a written statement.

The prosecutors have expressed concerns about a proposed settlement Shapiro could make with several major pharmaceutical companies that distributed opioid drugs. While Shapiro has cited large payments that would go toward Pennsylvania communities, the prosecutors pointed out that they could be repaid to many states over years, blunting the impact.

More state governments have targeted legal drug producers in recent years, tying easy access to prescription painkillers to widespread abuse and overdose deaths.

Pregnant workers could get accommodations

The latest effort to enshrine federal protections for pregnant workers moved a step closer to passage this week.

A Senate bill that would grant pregnant employees protections similar to those under the Americans with Disabilities Act cleared a Senate committee on Tuesday, setting the stage for a full vote.

“Worker health and safety is non-negotiable and we need to make it a priority for everyone,” Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., one of the bill’s sponsors, said in a news release announcing the victory.

If it becomes law, the bill would require businesses with 15 or more employees to grant reasonable accommodations to pregnant workers. While the definition of a reasonable accommodation isn’t precisely defined, the bill would call for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to provide examples.

Many states and local governments have passed their own rules to protect pregnant workers, and federal workers enjoy legal protections. But, despite repeated efforts in congress, a blanket reasonable accommodation law affecting all 50 states has yet to pass.

Bill would ban “deepfakes”

A state lawmaker is targeting the political use of so-called deepfakes — videos and recordings that use artificial intelligence to accurately replicate people’s appearances or voices.

In a memo to colleagues and an accompanying sample bill, Rep. Nick Pisciottano, D-Allegheny, proposed an election-season ban on the practice. Under the bill — not yet formally proposed in the General Assembly — affected political figures could sue those who disseminate deepfakes on the campaign trail.

Deepfakes have been discussed heavily in national media and by cybersecurity experts, although their use in politics has been limited. Opponents have warned that realistic fake videos could enable political operatives to put words in their opponents’ mouths, or even make them appear to have committed crimes.

The proposed bill would carve out exceptions for news outlets reporting on deepfakes, although they would have to clearly state that the content is fake while covering it.

“As technology advances and artificial intelligence-driven video editing software becomes more widespread, misinformation tactics will evolve,” Pisciottano said. “We cannot allow such misinformation to take root during the election season.”

Ryan Brown covers statewide politics for Ogden Newspapers. He can be reached at rbrown@altoonamirror.com.

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