Supporters of a bill that would expand access to a drug that can save the lives of people who have overdosed on opiates testified before the Legislature’s Health and human services committee on Tuesday.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Henry Beck, D-Waterville, would permit friends of drug addicts to be prescribed or administer naloxone, known by the trade name Narcan. They would also be granted immunity from civil or criminal liability. In addition, public health clinics could more easily prescribe the medication to anyone who qualifies.

The proposal would expand a law approved last year by the Legislature that allows family members to obtain naloxone prescriptions, and permits police and firefighters to administer the antidote. The bill became law without Gov. Paul LePage’s signature.

Administration officials did not testify on the bill at Tuesday’s public hearing, according to Beck, but Department of Health and Human Services officials have said they are opposed. In February, LePage told reporters that he’s against the bill.

“I think professionals should be dealing with the drug issues, not just everybody’s friend,” LePage told The Associated Press.

Olivia Atherton, 60, of Solon, said her son, Harlan Swegart, died three years ago of a heroin overdose at age 23 in Portland. At the time, although she knew her son had struggled with heroin addiction, she had never heard of Narcan.

She said if she had known, she would have insisted that her son pick up a prescription.

Atherton, in a phone interview with the Press Herald, said she can’t see a downside to expanding access to an antidote that saves lives.

“It’s a much bigger problem than people want to acknowledge,” Atherton said. “It could be anyone, the neighbor kid, the person waiting on your table at a restaurant or bagging your groceries. Addiction has no prejudice.”

Peter Michaud, a spokesman for the Maine Medical Association, which represents physicians, testified Tuesday that the bill would help because while addicts or their families may not seek a Narcan prescription, friends might see the need to have an antidote available.

Abuse has increased in Maine, with the number of treatment admissions for heroin or morphine increasing from 1,768 in 2010 to 2,965 in 2013, according to a 2014 report by the Maine Office of Substance Abuse.

“Maine’s physicians have seen first-hand the tragic consequences of drug abuse and addiction. Maine sees an average of three overdoses a week. This bill will help save lives,” Michaud told the committee, touting the drug’s “universal success” when given in time. “In order to be the most effective, naloxone needs to be readily accessible to those likely to experience an overdose at the time that they experience an overdose.”

Beck said when last year’s bill was debated, he was moved by personal stories of people who had lost family members from heroin overdoses.

“Something about these stories affected me, and since then I have taken the plunge and researched the topic,” Beck said after the hearing. “It broadens the class of people who can administer Narcan, people who can be ready to assist.”

The Maine Sheriffs’ Association also supported the measure.

Another bill before the committee strengthens the civil and criminal immunity granted to health professionals for prescribing, administering, possessing and storing the drug.

 


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