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: Call 911 and administer an effective antidote.
Pennsylvania legislators are looking at alternative legislation, and those who fear losing a loved one to a drug overdose want to make sure they get it right.
What laws do 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 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.
All too often, the person overdosing and the bystanders who could help are kids who are not thinking straight 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 a “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 an overdose. Lay people can quickly learn to administer it with an injection into a muscle or a nasal spray.
Naloxone is safe and easy to use — but it is a prescription medication, which means that the law allows only licensed medical personnel to administer it, and it can be prescribed legally only to people at risk of an overdose.
Over 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 as opposed to concerns about legal liability.
Pennsylvania’s General Assembly is now taking on this issue, with four separate bills in play. House Bill 2090 is the most comprehensive and promising, and it was passed unanimously by the House Human Services Committee.
The Allegheny County Overdose Prevention Coalition, directors of the Allegheny County Health Department and the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, as well as parent organizations, drug-treatment providers and the Allegheny County Child Death Review Team are on record as supporting H.B. 2090.
This bill combines two broad provisions to protect witnesses who call 911 and to allow parents and other potential witnesses, as well as police and other first responders, to carry and administer naloxone. It was written with input from existing programs that administer naloxone, including Prevention Point Pittsburgh and Prevention Point Philadelphia, and is based on experience gained from other states that have passed this type of law.
Several less-promising bills also have been introduced. Unfortunately, Senate Bill 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 make an emergency call.
More recently introduced, S.B. 1299 contains some language that would increase access to naloxone but was written without examining what works in other states. It has provisions that could actually impede the work of naloxone programs in Pennsylvania.
We need a Good Samaritan law that provides clear and simple immunity for controlled-substance 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 from professional licensing boards or charges from police.
If Pennsylvania takes the best from laws passed by other states, it also would remove legal barriers to naloxone administration by any sort of first responder who wants to learn how to use it, including police.
H.B. 2090 provides the best hope for effective legislation rather than symbolic action to reduce overdose deaths in Pennsylvania.
Scott Burris, a Temple Law School professor, has studied overdose prevention laws (firstname.lastname@example.org). Alice Bell is overdose prevention project coordinator for Prevention Point Pittsburgh (email@example.com). They are members of the Pennsylvania Overdose Prevention Action Network.