By Matthew McKibben | May 12, 2014
A group that speaks for low-income New Yorkers struggling with drug addiction and HIV/AIDS stood with lawmakers in Albany last week commending the Legislature for passing a bill that would expand access to an opioid overdose antidote while calling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign the measure into law with a sense of urgency.
The legislation would allow pharmacists to distribute Naloxone through non-patient specific orders and dispense the antidote to people directly at risk. The process of training individuals on how to administer Naloxone takes about two minutes, said Matt Curtis, policy director of
VOCAL New York. Members of VOCAL New York, a group that bills itself as a grassroots organization looking to help individuals with substance abuse problems, said increasing the availability of Naloxone will make it easier for health care organizations to help people in the communities they serve.
Drug overdose has surpassed motor vehicle accidents, and is now the leading cause of accidental death in New York. New evidence shows that a growing number of people are turning to heroin after finding prescription painkillers pricey and difficult to get their hands on.
“There is simply no better way to rapidly increase our ability to provide Naloxone and overdose education to those in need,” Curtis said. “That goes double for upstate and Long Island communities, which have been under-served to date.”
Curtis called Narcan extremely effective, saying it works almost 100 percent of the time, although in extenuating circumstances a person may need a second dose of the drug. He acknowledged that while all overdoses are different most people don’t die immediately, providing time for the drug to be applied. The antidote can be administered via injection or through a nasal atomizer in which it is absorbed through the nasal mucosa.
Last month, state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman initiated a program that equips local police departments with Naloxone kits. Since the launch of the program, 100 law enforcement agencies have applied for almost 3,300 kits, according to Schneiderman’s office.
While members of VOCAL New York are thankful for the attorney general’s support on the issue, they say it is imperative to increase the availability of the antidote even further. One group member, Robert Suarez, told a story of a person who was experiencing an overdose in a nearby park. A passerby called VOCAL New York and the police informing them of the overdose. The police were unable to find the person in the park but the group member–knowing the habits of the substance abuser and carrying a prescription for the drug– ran from the VOCAL New York office to the park and injected the person with Naloxone, saving his life.
“There is no substitute for getting Naloxone into the hands of people who use drugs themselves,” Curtis added. “There is no reason anyone should have to wait for an ambulance or police officer or another first responder before taking action.”
The bill passed both legislative houses unanimously – last week in the Assembly and last month in the Senate – a feat that Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz says is “extremely rare.”
“The explosion of opioid abuse, especially heroin, in the last few years across the country has shed new light on accidental overdoses,” said Dinowitz, D–Bronx, the Assembly sponsor of the bill (A.8637).
Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, who helped to draft the legislation, says this bill will save “thousands of lives.” He added that the Legislature has come a long way in understanding the concept of harm reduction and while prevention programs are necessary the state also needs to “do everything it can to stop the deaths that opioid abuse can lead to.”
“Whatever you may think about opioid abuse, it should not be subject to the death penalty,” said Gottfried, D–Manhattan, chair of the Assembly Health Committee. “Not too many years ago this would have never passed the Legislature.”
The Senate sponsor of the bill (S.6477), Sen. Kemp Hannon, chair of the Senate Health Committee, was not present at the press conference but offered a statement saying, “Access to this opioid antidote will equip families and loved ones likely to discover an overdose victim with the ability to save their life.”
The bill has been put on Cuomo’s desk to sign into law. The governor’s spokesman Rich Azzopardi said, “We will be reviewing this legislation, as well as other ways to combat heroin addiction in New York. There is no doubt that this is a critically important issue that needs to be addressed.”