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Bills that targeted overdose deaths died at session’s end

By By Eric Eyre
Staff writer

During the last days of the legislative session, West Virginia’s House of Delegates killed off two bills that aimed to reduce the state’s escalating number of drug overdose deaths.

West Virginia has the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation. The number of overdose deaths has increased six fold from 1999 to 2010.

Nonetheless, the House Judiciary Committee did not take up a Senate bill (SB336) that would have allowed police, firefighters and other emergency service personnel to administer naloxone, a drug that counters the effect of heroin and pain-pill overdoses.

The House also gutted a related Senate bill (SB419) that would have created a “Good Samaritan Law” to protect people from arrest and prosecution on drug possession charges when they call 911 to report a drug overdose. The House amended the bill so that only people who reported alcohol poisonings wouldn’t be prosecuted.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” said Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, who sponsored both bills. “There was no downside to these [policies]. This overdose problem is getting worse, not better, because of heroin.”

The Senate passed both bills unanimously. The House Health and Human Resources Committee also advanced the bills unanimously.

Both pieces of legislation, however, stalled in the House Judiciary Committee, which includes seven trial lawyers.

Under the naloxone bill, first responders who administer the drug incorrectly couldn’t be sued unless their actions amounted to “gross negligence and willful misconduct.”

“There were concerns about the limitations on liability,” said Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne, who heads the House health committee.

In West Virginia, only licensed paramedics can legally give naloxone — also known under the brand name Narcan — to people who overdose on narcotics.

The Kanawha County Emergency Ambulance Authority routinely uses naloxone, said Mike Jarrett, the agency’s spokesman and chaplain.

“It saves lives,” Jarrett said. “Police officers could definitely use it.”

Seventeen states allow police and firefighters to administer naloxone during emergencies. The drug has few side effects, and it can’t be used to get high.

“It’s a miracle drug,” said Stollings, a Boone County doctor. “There’s no downside to it. It’s so lifesaving.”

Seventeen states also have Good Samaritan laws that protect people who report drug overdoses.

The last day of the legislative session, the House voted 97-1 to strip out the words “controlled substance” from the Good Samaritan bill so the legislation would only give amnesty to people seeking emergency medical assistance for someone who drank too much alcohol.

The Senate rejected the House’s change to the bill.

“Unless you were drunk driving, you wouldn’t need immunity,” Stollings said.

Delegate Justin Marcum, D-Mingo, an assistant prosecutor, said the Senate’s Good Samaritan bill was well intentioned. But Marcum, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, predicted that drug dealers and addicts would have abused the proposed immunity provisions of the law to avoid prosecution. He said people don’t shy away from calling 911 to report a drug overdose.

“I’ve just never seen somebody run away from making a call for help,” he said.

Marcum added that supporters of the Good Samaritan bill presented no evidence that the legislation would save lives.

“There were a lot of unanswered questions, and we ran out of time,” he said.

Perdue said he was preoccupied with other legislation in the final days of the session and didn’t keep a close eye on the bills designed to reduce overdose deaths.

A joint House-Senate health committee had worked on both bills last year.

“They were both very important pieces of legislation that for one reason or another fell off the map,” Perdue said. “Neither one of those bills should have withered on the vine.”

Last fall, a Kanawha County Commission task force recommended the measures as a way to reduce overdose deaths.

In 2010, the number of drug overdose deaths in West Virginia — 29 for every 100,000 residents — even exceeded the number of people killed in auto accidents.

“It’s a sad day,” said Dr. Dan Foster, who headed the Kanawha substance abuse task force. “These are policies that have been extremely successful in reducing preventable deaths in numerous other states. There’s no reason to believe they wouldn’t be successful in West Virginia.”

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.

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