AUGUSTA –– Maine’s House of Representatives voted unanimously Monday to give preliminary approval to a bill that would give family members of opiate addicts access to naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of an overdose.
Gov. Paul LePage said he plans to veto the bill because it includes a provision to allow trained law enforcement officers to administer naloxone. He said in a prepared statement that the provision was not part of an agreement he struck last week with the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, and Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, who met with LePage to urge him to support the bill.
The Senate has not yet taken up the bill, but given the unanimous vote in the House, lawmakers appear likely to override LePage’s veto. An override requires two-thirds votes in the House and Senate.
Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s spokeswoman, said some law enforcement officials had expressed concerns about their liability in using naloxone, and that was the reason for LePage’s objection to the bill.
Bennett could not identify which officers or departments had raised those concerns, saying only that the governor had been approached by law enforcement officials at meetings related to a bill to increase drug enforcement and prosecution.
In written testimony on Gideon’s bill, neither the administration nor law enforcement raised concerns about liability. And it’s not clear why police would have greater liability than other first responders, such as firefighters or paramedics.
Asked if law enforcement’s concerns centered on possible adverse reactions to naloxone, Bennett said she did not want to speak for those who had raised the issue.
Gideon said Monday that the governor and his administration “never fully articulated” their objection to police administering naloxone.
Many Maine law enforcement officials, including the Maine Sheriffs Association, supported the original proposal. The state Department of Public Safety, which falls under the LePage administration, testified against it.
sponsor sought broader access
The amended bill was an attempt to strike a compromise between Gideon and the administration. The law would be more restrictive than similar laws enacted recently in other states. Other states have granted broader access to naloxone to reduce the increasing number of deaths from overdoses of heroin and other opiates.
Shortly before the House voted 147-0 to approve the bill Monday, Gideon said the amended proposal wouldn’t go far enough but would still help prevent overdose deaths by allowing first responders such as police, firefighters and basic emergency medical technicians to carry and dispense naloxone.
Under the current law, only paramedics may administer naloxone. Advanced emergency medical technicians also can, but only with approval from a hospital.
Gideon’s original bill would have further expanded legal possession and use of naloxone by allowing addicts’ family members and homeless shelters to give it to overdose victims. Gideon said LePage preferred a narrow proposal.
The governor has opposed broadening the use of naloxone.
He vetoed a similar bill last year. In his veto message, he said the anti-overdose drug would “make it easier for those with substance abuse problems to push themselves to the edge, or beyond. It provides a false sense of security that abusers are somehow safe from overdose if they have a prescription nearby.”
At a news conference last month, he said, “It’s an escape. It’s an excuse to stay addicted.”
His position softened during the negotiations over Gideon’s bill, especially after his meeting with Hobbins. But on Monday, he said the Legislature “decided to play political games with people’s lives” by further amending the bill.
“Our compromise bill allows family members to carry naloxone, but not police, which was acceptable to Rep. Hobbins and Rep. Sara Gideon, the bill’s Democratic sponsor,” LePage said in a statement. “Despite their agreement with me, the Legislature has put up a version of the bill they know full well will be shot down. We are trying to provide this life-saving measure to families, but lawmakers are trying to score political points.”
Bennett acknowledged the Republican support for the provision to let police administer naloxone, but said that doesn’t change the Republican governor’s position.
“There are issues that the governor and Republicans agree upon, but (LePage) has made his position on this clear,” she said.
OVERDOSES, NALOXONE USE RISING
During her floor speech Monday, Gideon said opioid addiction and overdose know neither class nor occupation. “These people are dying and we can help them,” she said.
There were 163 overdose deaths last year in Maine.
Naloxone is given as a nasal spray that goes directly to the brain, where it binds to opioid receptors to stop the effects of an opiate such as heroin. Overdose victims have one to three hours to receive naloxone to reverse the effects of the opiate. Given that window, supporters for expanded use argued that first responders and family members are in the best position to save lives.
The proposal approved Monday would allow licensed health care providers to prescribe naloxone to family members of opiate addicts under specific conditions. A key provision would require each addict to have an established patient relationship with a health care provider.
Gideon acknowledged that the provision assumes that addicts have doctors and are honest with their doctors about their drug use. However, she said the proposal would still “help people” and is probably the best outcome, given the governor’s philosophical opposition.
If the measure becomes law, Maine will join 21 other states and the District of Columbia in legislating access to naloxone. Seventeen of those states and the District of Columbia allow the drug to be distributed to the public. Expanded use of naloxone has resulted in more than 10,000 overdose reversals since 2001, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
According to the Maine Attorney General’s Office, heroin deaths in Maine quadrupled from 2011 to 2012, from seven to 28. The trend is mirrored nationally. There was a 45 percent increase in heroin overdose deaths from 2006 to 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Last month, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder urged first responders to carry naloxone to combat the increase in heroin overdoses. He said expanded naloxone use, and laws that grant immunity from prosecution to those who seek medical help for overdose victims, can save lives.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: