Speaker targets opioid epidemic with pair of legislative proposals

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House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (D-Dist. 15, Cranston) has introduced a pair of legislative proposals aimed at addressing the state’s ongoing opioid crisis.

“Over the course of several years, lawmakers, policymakers, medical professionals and community leaders have been collaborating and working hard to curb the opioid epidemic that has destroyed or taken the lives of so many in Rhode Island and across the nation,” the speaker said in a statement. “We are continuing to identify every possible contributing factor and implement every solution we can find to address this very complex crisis. We are making headway – recent figures show Rhode Island is experiencing fewer overdose deaths – but we still have much work to do to put an end to this devastating epidemic.”

The first proposal, labeled 2019-H 5537, seeks to limit first-time opiate prescriptions for adults to a seven-day supply. The same limit would be put in place for all opiate prescriptions for patients under the age of 18. Exemptions would be provided for patients being treated for cancer and other serious conditions, as well as for medications used in the treatment of substance abuse or dependence.

“The purpose of the limit is to prevent patients from becoming addicted,” the speaker’s statement reads. “Many of those who experience opioid dependence begin with a prescription they receive after a surgery or to treat a painful condition.”

The second measure, known as 2019-H 5536, would expand Good Samaritan Overdose Prevention Act protections to include law enforcement and emergency medical personnel.

“Many police and EMTs in the state are equipped with kits for administering naloxone – the opioid-overdose antidote commonly known by its trade name, Narcan,” the speaker’s statement reads. “In fact, a change made to the Good Samaritan Overdose Prevention Act last year allows them to distribute naloxone kits to at-risk individuals or their families or friends so they are equipped in case of an overdose. But the law did not specifically shield them for liability for administering or distributing the drug, and this bill would, provided they act in good faith. It would also provide the protection to officers and agencies participating in the Heroin-Opioid Prevention Effort [HOPE].”

Mattiello’s statement says the new proposals “build upon” a pair of bills he introduced, and which were signed into law, last year. Those bills provided patients with the option to partially fill painkiller prescriptions and established a means for patients to refuse the use of opiates in treatment. The two new bills have been assigned to the House Committee on Health, Education and Welfare.

Following Mattiello’s announcement, the Rhode Island Department of Health made a call for the expanded availability and use of a drug that can reverse the affects of a drug overdose.

“Public health leaders are again urging all Rhode Islanders who are comfortable doing so to carry naloxone, the overdose reversal medication,” a statement from the health department reads.

The department cites data published in the Rhode Island Medical Journal this month indicating that 34.2 percent of opioid overdoses to which emergency medical personnel responded in 2018 occurred in public places, such as parking lots, stores, streets, restaurants and beaches. That was up from 29.6 percent in 2016.

“Naloxone can be purchased over the counter at pharmacies throughout Rhode Island, and it is as easy to use as nasal spray,” Director of Health Nicole Alexander-Scott said in the department’s statement. “We are starting to make some progress in addressing the drug overdose crisis. However, as this report demonstrates, this is a changing epidemic. With so many overdoses happening in everyday places, and sometimes in plain sight, everyone can play a role in preventing overdoses and saving lives.”

Health officials say the state has seen a decrease in overdose deaths from opioids, including a 6.1-percent drop for the first 10 months of 2018 as compared with the same period of time in 2017.

According to the health department, 324 Rhode Islanders died as a result of a drug overdose in 2017. Full figures for 2018 are expected to be finalized in the coming weeks.

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