AUGUSTA, Maine — A life-saving drug that can stop an opiate overdose in its tracks could well be on its way into the hands of more emergency responders, law enforcement officers, firefighters and addicts’ loved ones.
Despite opposition — and a promised veto — from Gov. Paul LePage, the House unanimously voted to give initial approval to LD 1686, a bill by Rep. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport.
Naloxone hydrochloride, 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 EpiPen, or as a nasal mist, and can stop an overdose in its tracks.
Gideon said Monday that by ending an overdose, the drug provides more time to get a user to the hospital for further treatment.
“One-hundred-sixty-three Maine people died [in 2012], whose lives could have been saved,” Gideon said during a floor speech. “There is a window of one to three hours where their life could be saved. … Naloxone simply gives a person a chance to get medical treatment, and to live.”
The bill, as amended Monday in the House of Representatives, allows Narcan to be prescribed to individuals at risk of opiate overdoses and to members of their family. It also allows a family member to possess and administer the drug if they believe their loved one has overdosed.
It also allows, but does not mandate, local police and fire departments to give Narcan to law enforcement officers and firefighters, who are often the first on-scene when an overdose takes place. It would also allow for all levels of emergency medical responders to carry and administer the drug. Only paramedics had been allowed to make the decision to administer the drug in an emergency.
The Maine Sheriff’s Association came out in support of the bill last week, but LePage, who has said the drug ’s life-saving properties could encourage drug users to continue using, has concerns about providing Narcan to firefighters and law enforcement officers that have no specific Narcan training.
He had indicated support for a proposal, floated by Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, which would have given one family member, but not firefighters, police or basic EMTs, access to the drug.
But Republicans in the House, led by the GOP members of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee — who supported the provision giving the drug to first responders — split from the governor and joined Democrats in giving the bill a unanimous green light.
Gideon said that was the result of long, honest negotiations between the parties.
“We’ve worked very hard with the Republican caucus to reach a compromise,” she said. “I really have to credit them. It was a difficult process for them to arrive where we are today.”
Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, is the ranking Republican on the Health and Human Services Committee. She said that ensuring first responders had access to the drug would save lives. Providing Narcan to family members only might leave some users stranded, she said.
“Often, [police, firefighters or EMTs] are the first people on the scene,” she said after Monday’s vote. “This doesn’t always happen in the home. … It usually happens somewhere else.”
Sanderson also stressed that the bill does not require any fire or police department to start deploying Narcan, but it instead gives them the legal grounds to decide for themselves whether or not officers and firefighters should carry the drug.
“They all have the authority to make their own decisions,” she said.
Still, LePage blasted the House of Representatives for passing the bill. His spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, called the addition of the first-responder provision a “poison pill.” She promised the governor would veto.
In a prepared statement, the governor said lawmakers were “trying to score political points” by passing a different version of the bill than he had worked out with Hobbins.
“After Democratic Rep. Barry Hobbins and I worked on a compromise to this bill and it appeared to be moving forward, the Legislature decided to play political games with people’s lives,” he said. “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.”
In Maine, heroin use and overdoses are on the rise, a spike that law-enforcement officials link, in part, to successful efforts to prevent prescription opiates such as oxycodone from entering the black market. In 2012, fatal heroin overdoses quadrupled over the previous year, from seven deaths to 28. The attorney general’s office says that number is likely to grow again when 2013 data is compiled.
Narcan has been available in hospitals for years, but its presence on the streets has been limited. So far this year, five other states — Vermont, Massachusetts, New York, Wisconsin and New Jersey — have all moved to expand the availability of the drug.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that between 1996 and 2010, Narcan was responsible for more than 10,000 overdose reversals.
The bill faces further votes in the House and Senate.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.