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Maine Lawmakers Hear Emotional Testimony on Overdose Antidote Bill
02/12/2014   Reported By: Jay Field

A sharp rise in deaths from heroin overdoses has some lawmakers pushing for wider access to a drug that counteracts their effects. Naloxone, commonly known by it's brand name Narcan, is currently available to addicts through a doctor's prescription. A bill before the Legislature would allow family members and emergency responders to legally carry and administer the drug. But as Jay Field reports, Gov. Paul LePage vetoed a similar measure last year and looks ready to do so again.

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Overdose Antidote Bill Prompts Emotional Testimony
Originally Aired: 2/12/2014 5:30 PM

The man at the podium has told his story more than 150 times in four-and-a-half years: a short video and a talk usually, often arranged by the U.S. Attorney's Office, before gatherings of middle and high schools students throughout Maine and Vermont.

Today's audience is 14 state lawmakers, members of the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee - just another chance for Skip Gates to tell his story - except this day, Feb. 12, is unlike any other day.

"One-thousand-seven-hundred-eighty days ago this morning, I was teaching mathematics in my classroom at Lawrence High School in Fairfield," when Gates got a message: Go to the principal's office, "to receive the worst message any parent will ever get: 'We regret to inform you that your son was found deceased in his apartment this morning of a suspected drug overdose.'"

Will Gates was a junior at the University of Vermont, a talented ski racer and recepient of a presidential scholarship, studying molecular genetics and nurturing dreams of going to medical school.

"However, neither his intellect, not his science background could protect him," Gates said. "And he was 21 years old when he died."

Gates's son overdosed on heroin. Gates shared his story with lawmakers in an effort to persuade them to support a bill to expand access to Narcan and save the lives of other overdose victims. The drug, also known as naloxone, can reverse the effects of an opiate overdose, if administered right away.

Maine law only allows doctors to prescribe Narcan to their patients. But with fatal heroin overdoses in Maine quadrupling in recent years, Sara Gideon says that needs to change. The Freeport Democrat is sponsoring the Narcan expansion bill.

"This bill would allow them to prescribe the medicine for the loved one or family member of a user," she said. "If my child was heroin user, I might be able to go to my family physician and say, 'I'm worried they might overdose sometime.'"

Current law, Gideon told the committee, allows paramedics in Maine to carry Narcan and administer it in an emergency. "Advanced Medical Technicians carry it, but they have to call the hospital first and go through a sort of protocol and get permission to administer it," she said. "Basic EMTs don't carry it at all."

Gideon's bill would make it legal for all EMT's to carry the drug, and she encouraged fellow lawmakers to consider including police officers and firefighters in this group.

The District of Columbia and as many as 17 states have expanded access to Narcan in recent years. The drug has been around since the 1960s. For years, taking it meant having to inject it into the bloodstream. But now, special Narcan kits allow it to be sprayed into the nose of an overdose victim.

This spring, MaineGeneral Health will begin a pilot program, distributing a limited number of the kits to chronic pain patients.

"When we teach this to EMS providers, they are taught to administer it slowly," said Jay Bradshaw, who heads up Maine Emergency Medical Services.

Bradshaw opposes expanding acess to naloxone. He says equipping first responders with the drug, without proper training, could lead to problems.

"Patients who are given naloxone do not simply and gently awaken, as you heard," he said. "On the contrary, they can be angry and physically violent. Vomiting is not all unusual. And in an unresponsive patient, aspiration is a real concern. Other more serious side effects could include seizures and cardiac arrest."

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services, meantime, objects to a provision in the bill that would require that Medicaid reimburse beneficiaries for Naloxone and do it with existing funds. Maine, a department offficial told the committee, can't afford that.

But Skip Gates says that would be a small price to pay for the lives the bill could save. "Passage might translate into 102 Maine families, each and every year, who won't have to live the unthinkable," he said. "And with all due respect, one of those families we save just might be your own."

The Health and Human Services Committee will now hold a work session on the bill. But even if they vote it out with an "ought-to-pass" recommendation, it faces a tough journey to become law. According to the Huffington Post, Gov. Paul LePage's top health policy adviser has told Rep. Sara Gideon that LePage intends to veto the bill.


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