The Connecticut Legislature is making an effort to prevent heroin-related overdoses. One side effect may include reducing the potential civil liability of those who might provide lifesaving medication to drug users.
The state House of Representatives has unanimously approved a measure providing civil and criminal immunity to anyone administering opiate antagonist prescription drugs such as naloxone (commonly sold under the Narcan brand name), a medication that can save the lives of those who overdose on heroin.
Twenty-two states and Washington, D.C., grant some sort of immunity to family, friends and first responders who administer drugs combating an opiate-related overdose. Connecticut is not yet among them, and some critics say that policy is resulting in needless deaths of drug addicts.
The state Department of Public Health has the final say on whether paramedics can carry Narcan. The state agency reportedly has a committee looking into reversing the rule regarding Narcan, and a law that grants immunity could influence the decision.
The legislative Judiciary Committee considered the matter in March. Citing input from the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, the Judiciary Committee in a written report stated that “many overdose victims expire before they can be administered an opioid antagonist due to the fact that current law does not provide Good Samaritan status to the person administering the drug.”
The report listed a wide variety of groups and individuals favoring the lawsuit immunity legislation. They included the Connecticut Pharmacists Association, Connecticut Medical Society, the Connecticut Prevention Network and the AIDS Connecticut advocacy group.
“This bill protects individuals, such as family members and friends, from liability for administering an opioid antagonist to someone experiencing an opioid-related drug overdose,” said state Health Commissioner Jewel Mullen. “Narcan is a safe and effective prescription medicine that reverses an opioid overdose. Passage of this bill will protect individuals who intervene to prevent a death due to opioid overdose.”
The Judicial Committee report revealed no formal opposition, though some legal observers have pointed out there don’t appear to be any instances on record of anyone being sued for administering Narcan. The Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association generally opposes initiatives granting new immunities from lawsuits, but it did not take a formal stand on the Narcan bill.
CTLA President Douglas Mahoney, of Tremont & Sheldon, did not respond to an interview request last week. In an opinion column in a recent issue of the Law Tribune, he offered his general views on measures limiting or removing liability for certain actions.
“Immunity is nothing more than a license for irresponsible behavior by people or businesses,” wrote Mahoney. “It is a permanent protection against accountability. With the granting of immunity comes the slow erosion of one pillar of our democracy that is a fundamental right—the ability to take your grievance to an independent judiciary. The Connecticut General Assembly must not be seduced by the promises of those seeking immunity.”
This isn’t the first time the General Assembly attempted to expand the availability of Narcan. In 2012, lawmakers passed a law allowing friends and family to obtain a Narcan prescription if they suspect a loved one is using heroin.
Heroin and other opiates cause death by depressing respiration, a process which can almost instantly be reversed by the administration of Narcan. Accessibility to the drug is restricted, however, because it is classified by the Food and Drug Administration as a prescription substance. As such, most states require a licensed health-care provider to evaluate a patient prior to prescription and administration.
This requirement technically precludes emergency medical technicians, paramedics, police and other first responders, or friends and family of drug users from administering the drug. But the growing heroin epidemic has led several states—including New Jersey—to take recent action to make Narcan more widely available and to shield people who may administer it from liability.
“In public health terms, wider availability of naloxone will reduce the mortality of Connecticut’s leading cause of unintentional deaths of our young people,” said Dr. Peter Rostenberg, who submitted testimony to the Judiciary Committee on behalf of the Connecticut Medical Society. “It has no ‘street value’ and is inexpensive. There is no possibility for abuse.”•