A bill that would give limited legal immunities to those who call in drug-related medical emergencies or administer a preventative overdose medication was passed by the General Assembly Tuesday night and Wednesday morning in a red-eye voting session that began at 2 p.m. and went into the early morning hours.
Sponsored in the House by Rep. Frank Ferri (District 22) and in the Senate by Sen. Rhoda Perry (District 3) as companion bills, the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Prevention Act now awaits signature by Governor Chafee. When asked of the governor’s opinion of the bill, the office’s legislative director Christine Hunsinger said that the governor would not release comment related to the legislation.
After four years of submitting the drug legislation, the struggle seems to be over, said Sen. Perry over the phone. “I am very satisfied, hopeful that with the legislation, we will be saving over a hundred lives a year.”
The bill works in conjunction with other drug-related laws, Perry said, such as one that allows the Department of Health to track the illicit activities of opiates prescription users (doctor shoppers) and their providers, as well as one that gives those with leftover prescriptions access to receptacle zones at police departments.
“That way, drugs won’t be left at homes and be potential targets for theft to those who sort through medicine cabinets or those that ‘doctor shop,’” said Perry.
“I think that we will have far fewer deaths as a function of all of those three bills combined,” she concluded.
Supporters of the Good Samaritan Overdose Prevention Act, specifically those in the medical community, are optimistic that Chafee will sign the law, and if so, promote people in drug-related emergencies to seek immediate medical attention.
In an earlier interview at the State House, Rep. Ferri referred to it as, “encouragement to call.”
“I think this is fantastic news and a great step in Rhode Island, and an incredible opportunity. I hope that the governor follows with supporting it,” said Dr. Josiah Rich, professor of medicine and community health at Brown Medical School. Rich and his associates at Lifespan Miriam Hospital testified in favor of the bill in committee last month.
“The progress this bill has made is very encouraging. Again, we applaud these efforts and look forward to this becoming law soon,” said Jim Beardsworth, director of marketing and public relations at Kent Hospital.
The bill faces other challenges as well – the education of law enforcement officers.
“The success [of the bill] is going to depend on the ability to which the extent that police understand that it’s far more important [to save lives] than to get a charge at that point and time,” said Rich.
Warwick currently has the highest fatal overdose rate in Rhode Island, with fatal cases often linked to illicit prescription drugs cocktailed with alcohol – a trend that was called “a crisis” by Steven DeToy, director of government and public affairs at the Rhode Island Medical Society.
Kent Hospital admitted 75 overdose cases by the middle of the 2012 fiscal year, as well as two deaths in one week in April. By comparison, there were 66 drug overdoses admitted in the entirety of 2011.
Beardsworth understands the apprehension of police departments in adapting to the changes that the Good Samaritan Act could bring, but in light of the hospital’s increase in overdose cases, disagrees.
“While we can certainly understand and appreciate the concerns expressed by law enforcement, as a hospital seeing far too many of these [drug-related] incidents, it is heartening to see the efforts put in place to effectively help save lives,” Beardsworth said in an emailed statement.
Similar legislation has been passed into law in several states, including Colorado this past May, New York in July of 2011 and Washington in 2010. According to the Centers for Disease Control, drugs claimed more Americans’ lives than car accidents did in 2009.
When Washington Governor Christine Gregoire signed a similar bill into law in 2010 called the 911 Good Samaritan Act, Seattle medics were treating up to 45 serious opiate overdose victims each month. The figure comes from a study done by the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute.
Released by the Institute in 2011 after the passage of the law, the study surveyed drug users and law enforcement. Results indicated that 88 percent of opiate users said they “would be more likely to call 911 during future overdoses.”
The study also showed that over 50 percent of drug users hesitated to call 911 during overdoses due to fear of police involvement. By comparison, only 38 percent of law enforcement officers said they would attempt to obtain a drug possession charge from an overdose call.