A bill that would enable more people to administer a life-saving drug to someone overdosing from heroin and other opiates is now headed to Gov. Robert Bentley for his signature.
“I feel great about it,” said the measure’s original sponsor, Rep. Allen Treadaway, R-Warrior. “I never said this about a piece of legislation before, but I think that this bill will save lives. I know it will.”
The Senate passed a revised version of the legislation, sponsored by Sen. Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills, before breaking for lunch today, and the House approved that version this afternoon.
Once Bentley signs the bill into the law, it will take effect immediately.
“Getting a piece of legislation (applying) statewide passed here is not an easy thing,” Treadaway said.
As originally worded, the bill would authorize a physician or dentist, “acting in good faith and exercising reasonable care,” to “directly or by standing order prescribe an opiod antagonist” to someone “at risk of experiencing an opiate-related overdose” or to “a family member, friend or other individual, including law enforcement, in a position to assist an individual at risk of experiencing an opiate-related overdose.”
The “opiod antagonist” mentioned in the bill is naloxone hydrochloride, a synthetic drug commonly known as narcan that can reverse the effects of an overdose of heroin or another opiate. At present, trained paramedics give naloxone to someone overdosing on heroin, hydrocodone or other opioid painkillers.
The bill’s supporters say that in many areas of Alabama law enforcement officers are often the first to arrive at an overdose scene and that they could save lives by giving naloxone by injection or by nasal spray to overdose victims. The bill would require the Alabama
Department of Public Health to approve a program to show law enforcement officers how to properly administer naloxone.
Support for the measure has come from relatives of heroin users, Birmingham Treatment Alternatives for Safer Communities and the Jefferson County Board of Health. Dr. Mark Wilson, Jefferson County health officer, has lobbied in Montgomery on behalf of the bill.
Support for the legislation has grown because of the growing number of deaths caused by heroin or other opiates in Alabama. In Jefferson County alone, heroin was the primary cause of 137 deaths in 2014, more than double the 58 recorded in 2013 and in 2012. So far this year, the number of heroin-linked deaths is 45, a number that suggests the year’s total may be lower than that of 2014. But Jefferson County Chief Deputy Coroner Bill Yates said another narcotic known as fentanyl is making its lethal presence felt, and has caused 32 deaths so far this year.
“It takes a whole lot less to overdose on fentanyl than it does on heroin,” Yates said.Wilson said nalaxone can also reverse a fentanyl overdose.
The naloxone bill passed easily in the House, but it hit a snag in the Senate over a section which would grant immunity “from any civil or criminal liability” to a physician or dentist who prescribes naloxone, an individual who administers it when someone is overdosing or a pharmacist who dispenses the naloxone. That immunity would not apply if the individuals had engaged in “unreasonable, wanton, willful or intentional conduct.”
The immunity wording troubled the Alabama Association for Justice, formerly the Alabama Trial Lawyers Association, which represents plaintiffs’ attorneys across the state. But the Medical Association of the State of Alabama was keen on keeping immunity for physicians, dentists and pharmacists.
“That was a huge stumbling block,” said Niko Corley, a lobbyist for the medical association.
Despite their differences, Wilson said, both groups, prodded by Treadaway and Waggoner, “recognized the importance of getting some legislation passed that has the potential to save lives, and agreed to work on a ‘third way.’” Ultimately, he said, they came to an agreement.
“At the end of the day, they knew the importance of the bill, too,” Treadaway said.