Two steps Pa. can take to save lives
By Scott Burris
and Alice Bell
With the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, the whole nation seems to have come to a shared sense of the severity of the opioid overdose problem and the need to take life-saving action.
In fact, Hoffman is just the latest in a terrible string of celebrity deaths, adding a macabre star power to the list of more than 100,000 people who have died of an opioid overdose in the United States in the past 10 years.
A growing number of states have taken action to promote two simple practices that everyday people can take to save the life of someone experiencing a drug overdose: calling 911, and administering an effective antidote.
Now Pennsylvania's legislature is looking at taking these steps, and friends and families of those who fear losing a loved one to a drug overdose want to make sure our legislators get it right.
What are the laws we need? And why do we need them?
First, we need what's called a "Good Samaritan 911" provision. This kind of law, which has already been adopted in 16 states and the District of Columbia, promises that people who call for emergency help at the scene of an overdose won't be arrested or punished.
Obviously, there are usually drugs and drug paraphernalia at the scene of an overdose, and often the drugs were not legally obtained. All too often, the person overdosing and the bystanders who could help are kids, who are not thinking straight already and, tragically, are more worried about getting in trouble than saving a life. "Good Sam" legislation helps take this fear out of the way.
Even more important is the "third-party" naloxone administration provision.
Naloxone is the standard antidote that first responders and emergency-room staff use to reverse an opioid overdose. It is a well-tested drug that does nothing other than reverse the overdose. Lay people can quickly learn to administer it with an injection into a muscle or via a nasal spray.
Naloxone is safe and easy to use - but it is a prescription medication, which means that, under the law, only licensed medical personnel can administer it, and it can only be prescribed legally to people at risk of an overdose. In the past 10 years, more than 180 programs have emerged in the United States to prescribe naloxone to parents, friends, and others who might witness people using opioids (legally or illegally) and to teach them to administer it in an emergency. The emphasis has been on saving lives, but concerns about the legal technicalities of how naloxone could be prescribed have gotten in the way of spreading this model.
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have passed laws to make it legal for bystanders to get prescriptions for naloxone and use this medication to reverse an overdose. Many states have also expanded the power to carry and use naloxone to a range of nonmedical first responders, such as police.
Pennsylvania's General Assembly is now taking on this issue, and people coping with the overdose epidemic are hoping for more than symbolic action. One Good Sam bill, S.B. 1164, passed the Senate in December, but is so full of exceptions to immunity that a kid would need a lawyer's advice before deciding to call. Fortunately, several different bills are in play.
We need a Good Samaritan law that provides clear, simple, and categorical immunity for controlled-substance-related crimes for people who seek emergency help. We need a naloxone provision that makes it clear that doctors can prescribe it and lay people can use it without fear of lawsuits, trouble with a professional licensing board, or charges from the police. If Pennsylvania takes the best from the laws already passed, it will also remove legal barriers to naloxone administration by any sort of first responder who wants to learn how to use it, including police.
Scott Burris, a professor at Temple Law School who has studied overdose prevention laws, and Alice Bell, the overdose prevention project coordinator for Prevention Point Pittsburgh, are members of the Pennsylvania Overdose Prevention Action Network. firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com