AUGUSTA, Maine — After unanimous votes Wednesday in both chambers, the Maine Legislature sent Gov. Paul LePage a bill that broadens access to a medication meant to counter deadly overdoses of opiate-based drugs, including prescription painkillers and heroin.
Slight changes to the bill that originated in the Senate on Wednesday reportedly will make it more acceptable to LePage, who initially expressed opposition to the measure.
Naloxone hydrochloride, known largely by the brand name Narcan, blocks opioid receptors in a drug user’s brain, ending the euphoria and effects of heroin or other opiates and triggering an immediate and severe withdrawal.
The medication can be administered in the same manner as an EpiPen — used for allergic reactions — or as a nasal mist, and it can stop an overdose in its tracks.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, allows a larger group of emergency responders — including firefighters, police or the drug-user’s family members — to possess and administer Narcan in the case of an overdose.
Gideon said Monday that 163 Mainers lost their lives to drug overdoses in 2012. She said that by ending overdose effects, the drug provides more time to get people who have overdosed to the hospital, where they can receive more extensive treatment.
The bill, LD 1686, also permits, but does not mandate, local officials to give Narcan to law enforcement officers and firefighters, who often are first on the scene when an overdose takes place.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, the use of Narcan has reversed the effects of more than 10,000 overdoses nationwide since 1996. Maine and New Hampshire are the only two New England states that do not allow most first responders to administer the drug.
LePage, who has said the drug’s lifesaving properties could encourage drug users to continue using, previously voiced concerns about providing Narcan to firefighters and law enforcement officers that have no specific Narcan training.
LePage had offered support for a proposal by Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, to allow the drug to be made available to one family member but not firefighters, police or basic EMTs.
An amendment added to the bill in the Senate by Sen. James Hamper, R-Oxford, looks to alleviate some of LePage’s concerns by disallowing basic EMTs from using the medication and by requiring training for police and firefighters before being allowed to administer the drug.
Hamper said later Wednesday that he met with LePage and the governor was on board with changes made by his amendment.
Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s press secretary, confirmed the meeting and said the governor’s primary concern was that firefighters and police officers had adequate medical training before being allowed to dispense Narcan.
“The governor is amenable to those changes,” Bennett said.
She said it was likely LePage would allow the bill to pass into law without his signature.
In truncated debate Wednesday in the Senate, Hamper told his colleagues that EMTs receive protocols from the state’s Emergency Medical Services bureau, and that agency’s board set medical directives for medical responders.
Sen. John Tuttle, D-Sanford, an EMT, asked if the amendment meant EMTs would be allowed to administer the drug under the change. Hamper said they would not.
Maine law allows only licensed paramedics to administer naloxone. Advanced EMTs also may do so under the guidance of a local hospital’s emergency room doctor.
“I can tell you that most of the time, we are the first to arrive at the scene,” said Sen. David Dutremble, D-Biddeford.
Dutremble, who works as an emergency responder for the Biddeford Fire Department, said the bill as amended will save lives in Maine.
“As a first responder, I urge Gov. LePage to once again reconsider his threat of a veto and instead help us help those who are struggling with addiction in our state,” Dutremble said.
After two unanimous votes in the Senate and one in the House on Wednesday, the bill now goes to LePage, who can sign it, veto it or let it become law without his signature.