- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 12, 2014

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - Increasing access to a drug that counteracts the effects of heroin and other opiates to prevent overdoses is vital to save lives, lawmakers were told Wednesday in Maine, where Republican Gov. Paul LePage recently called on legislators to help him address the “troubling epidemic” of drug addiction.

Supporters of a bill that would allow more people to be prescribed the drug, naloxone, addressed the Health and Human Services Committee. The bill, which LePage’s administration opposes, is raising questions about the right path forward in combating the growing drug-abuse problem in Maine. But supporters say expanding access to naloxone, the generic form of the drug Narcan, is a no-brainer that will save lives.

“Do we need to think about controlling heroin or opiate abuse? Absolutely - that’s the job of law enforcement,” Rep. Sarah Gideon, a Democrat from Freeport, told lawmakers. “But in this committee today, I hope that we can all recognize that we have a public health emergency on our hands and we can actually help to save people’s lives, starting with the passage of this bill.”

Gideon’s bill would allow health care professionals to prescribe the naloxone to a family member or caregiver of addicts and allow more emergency responders, like emergency medical technicians, to carry the drug. Gideon also asked the committee to consider allowing police officers and firefighters to also administer naloxone.

But the idea is getting pushback from LePage’s administration.

LePage closed his State of the State address last week by discussing the drug-abuse problem in Maine and called for 14 new drug enforcement agents and more drug prosecutors and judges. In a letter explaining his veto on a similar bill last session, LePage said it would merely provide “a false sense of security that abusers are somehow safe from overdose if they have a prescription nearby.”

That concern was echoed Wednesday from Rep. Deborah Sanderson, a Republican on the committee from Chelsea, who said she believes the bill is sending the wrong message.

“I look at this as almost offering a safety net - to make it safer to use drugs,” she told The Associated Press. “Right now, anyone who is an addict can get the prescription and they can carry it. … Why do we want to open that door up any further?”

Nick Adolphsen, director of legislative affairs for the Department of Health and Human Services, told the committee that the bill would increases costs because it would require naloxone to be covered by Medicaid and widely broadens the number of people who can legally administer it.

Meanwhile, Jay Bradshaw, director of the Maine Emergency Medical Services bureau said the measure conflicts with a law directing EMS providers to follow protocols set and maintained by medical direction of practices board. He also pointed to the negative side effects of the drug, like seizures and cardiac arrest.

But Gideon rejected the notion that increase access to the drug will make users feel that they can use the drug with no consequence, comparing the idea to someone driving more recklessly because their car has seatbelt. The bill merely gives addicts a chance to have a better life, supporters said.

“A person who’s dead can’t give their family hope that they can change. … A person who’s dead is just a permanent hole in the heart of a mom, dad, a spouse, a family member or a friend,” said Jill Harris, managing director of the strategic initiatives at the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance said in her written testimony to the committee.

“These deaths can be prevented. We have the means to prevent them. We need only the will.”

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Follow Alanna Durkin on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/aedurkin

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