Deal in the works to win LePage’s support for drug that can stop heroin overdose

Posted April 09, 2014, at 11:54 a.m.
Last modified April 09, 2014, at 5:39 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A deal is in the works to win Gov. Paul LePage’s support for a proposal to make naloxone — a life-saving, overdose-stopping drug — more readily available, said the bill’s sponsor.

Naloxone, also known by its brand name, Narcan, blocks opioid receptors in the drug user’s brain, ending the euphoria and effects of heroin or other opiates and triggering an immediate and severe withdrawal. It can be administered in the same manner as an Epi-Pen, or as a nasal mist, and can stop an overdose in its tracks.

Rep. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, proposed LD 1686 in January. The bill would make Narcan available to family members and friends of opiate addicts, as well as first-responders such as police officers and firefighters. The bill also would create a civil and criminal immunity for those who administer naloxone or other similar drugs to someone believed to be suffering from an opiate overdose.

LePage opposed Gideon’s proposal in its original form, sending members of his administration to testify against the proposal at the Health and Human Services Committee. Last year, he vetoed LD 1046, a bill similar to Gideon’s, saying that providing naloxone would provide opiate abusers “a false sense of security that abusers are somehow safe from overdose if they have a prescription nearby.”

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LePage also has been featured recently in national newscasts, calling the wider distribution of Narcan “an excuse to stay addicted.”

“Let’s deal with the treatment, the proper treatment, and not saying ‘go overdose, and by the way, I’ll be there to save you,’” he said during a recent press conference at the State House.

On Wednesday, however, Gideon said she had received word from the LePage administration that the governor would support a stripped-down version of the bill, which allows for family members of opiate addicts to be prescribed the drug. LePage would also support a provision allowing family members to administer Narcan that had been prescribed to loved ones in the case of an overdose.

The compromise was a result of conversations between LePage and Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, Gideon said. Hobbins is known as one of few Democrat lawmakers with a strong working relationship with the governor.

During a Wednesday press conference at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in Vassalboro, LePage confirmed he’d been speaking with Hobbins about the bill. He said he’d support allowing one member of an addict’s family to have access to the drug, as long as certain conditions were met: The family member would need to go through some level of training on how to administer the drug — and deal with the repercussions of a sudden withdrawal that often results in violent sickness and/or aggressive behavior — and the addict would need to sign a waiver, allowing someone else to dose them in case of an overdose.

The governor said his senior health policy advisor, Holly Lusk, was working out a version of the bill he could support, but he stopped short of saying there was anything of a done deal.

“The problem is this: What I do in my office, and what I send upstairs [to the Legislature] never comes back the way I sent it up,” he said. “So I don’t know what they’re going to do.”

“We are really happy the governor was able to move on what we feel is something so crucial, and that will immediately save lives, which is for family members to have access to that prescription,” Gideon said.

Naloxone has been used in hospitals for decades, but its use outside hospitals is limited to paramedics. The drug can be prescribed to addicts, but Gideon and other proponents have said addicts in the throes of an overdose are not able to administer the drug to themselves.

Gideon said that while she’s pleased the governor has been willing to work out a deal, she’s disappointed he’s been unwilling to go along with the provision in the bill to allow first-responders to carry Narcan as part of standard toolkits.

“We specifically created that language so it would not be a mandate, so that local municipalities could decide on a case-by-case basis,” she said. “We know rural parts of this state are some of the worst places for addiction, and in some of those communities, law enforcement would be the first to arrive at a scene, by more than an hour.”

In Quincy, Mass., police officers have begun to carry and administer naloxone. In 18 months, starting in 2010, the police department administered the drug 179 times, including 170 overdose reversals.

Gideon’s bill was approved by the Health and Human Services Committee in February, but it has yet to be put on the floor for consideration. If the deal worked out with LePage is finalized, it will likely be attached to the bill as a House amendment.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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