Editor's Note: There have been 115 bills signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf in 2019. That’s just a fraction of the more than 2,800 bills introduced in the state House or Senate this legislative session. This ongoing series explores some of the proposals circulating at the Capitol that haven’t gotten much attention elsewhere.
HARRISBURG – People who overdose wouldn’t get Good Samaritan protection from prosecution if they summon help unless they agree to undergo an assessment to determine if they need drug treatment counseling, under legislation that passed the state House on Tuesday.
Proponents say the legislation is needed to reduce the likelihood that people struggling with addiction repeatedly get rescued by emergency responders using the overdose-stopping drug, Naxolone.
Opponents, including state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs and drug treatment providers, fear the measure will confuse people about whether they will get arrested if they call for help.
It’s a problem because people struggling with drug addiction are frequently uncertain about whether they can trust that the Good Samaritan laws will protect them prosecution, said Kristen Houser, director of the drug and alcohol division for the Rehabilitation and Community Providers Association of Pennsylvania.
State officials share those concerns, said Rachel Kostelac, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs.
“The department opposes House Bill 137. While we understand that the goal of the bill is to encourage those who overdose to obtain treatment for substance use disorder, we are concerned about the unintended consequences of this bill, such as discouraging individuals who overdose from seeking emergency services for fear of potential prosecution,” Kostelac said. “During a crisis such as an overdose, seconds matter. Any hesitation in contacting emergency personnel could be the difference between a person’s life and death.”
The House measure, House Bill 137, passed by a vote of 122-72. All of the negative votes came from Democrats, but 15 Democrats voted in favor of the proposal.
“Pennsylvania is being plagued by the current opioid epidemic and it is incumbent upon the legislature to try to make positive change,” said state Rep. Christopher Quinn, R-Delaware County, the author of House Bill 137. “Under the current Good Samaritan Law, overdose victims are not charged with any drug related crimes, but unfortunately they continue to fall into a cycle of continuous overdosing due to a lack of treatment. This legislation ensures the victims are receiving the treatment they so desperately need.”
The measure now goes to the Senate where’s its fate is unclear.
A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate, authored by state Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming County. Yaw said he’s not had any indication that either the House version, or the legislation he authored, are teed up to move in the Senate when lawmakers return to the Capitol after the holidays.
Pennsylvania has had a Good Samaritan law in place since 2014. Under the law, a person witnessing another individual overdosing is protected from prosecution for drug charges if they summon help. The state Supreme Court last year, in a decision based on a Dauphin County case, clarified that the Good Samaritan protection should also be provided to an individual who calls 911 to report that he or she is the person experiencing an overdose.
But the unintended consequence of the law is that emergency responders are getting summoned to resuscitate the same people over and over, Yaw said.
He said that he views the legislation as a means of “protection” for police by allowing them to file charges, but clarifying that the charges would be dropped if the individuals involved get drug treatment within 30 days of the incident.
“After listening to many first responders, I believe that we can no longer give individuals suffering from an opioid or other drug-related overdose a free pass, only to have them overdose a second or subsequent time and risk dying,” Yaw said.
The House version also gives the individuals 30 days to seek help, but only requires that they undergo an evaluation to determine whether they need treatment.
That could create a separate set of problems if too many overdose victims seek evaluations without following through to get treatment, said Paul Bacharach, president and CEO of Gateway Rehab, a Pittsburgh-based drug treatment center. That could make it more difficult for people to get treatment, if facilities are busy providing evaluations to overdose victims who have no intention of getting any recommended help, he said.
And many overdose victims won’t get treatment “unless there are ramifications” for failing to get help, he said. On the other hand, when program, like drug courts, do threaten penalties for failing to get treatment, they’ve been successful in helping people, Bacharach said.