When Tracy Luke's son died from a heroin overdose last year, it took nine hours before anyone called 911. It took so long, she said, because the people he was using with didn't want to get in trouble with police.
She's hoping pending legislation in Harrisburg will help another mother avoid learning her son or daughter is dead from an overdose.
"It took a long time to be able to breathe again," said Luke, 43, of Altoona. Her 25-year-old son, R.J. Beard, died in Indiana County in the early morning hours of July 8 after injecting heroin, an addiction he struggled with and tried to kick for several years. He was clean, in fact, leading up to the night he overdosed while in a bathtub, a night she recalled waking suddenly at 3:33 a.m. with an unshakable feeling that something was terribly wrong.
Her son's time of death was between 3 and 4 a.m., but it
wasn't until early the next afternoon that anyone called the authorities.
Luke said she supports a bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Mike Fleck, R-Huntingdon, that includes immunity from arrest and prosecution for anyone who seeks medical assistance for an overdose victim as well the person who overdoses.
Along with the good Samaritan law, the bill also provides a mechanism to provide drugs like naloxone, sold under the name Narcan, to nonmedical professionals such as family members of opiate users, as well as to direct the Department of Health to implement programs and measures to further address drug overdoses.
Good Samaritan bill
House Bill 2090 passed out of the Human Services Committee on Tuesday without opposition and is now before the House, and although he hasn't looked closely at the proposed law and therefore can't say how he would vote, Rep. John McGinnis, R-Altoona, called call the concept of a good Samaritan law "eminently sensible" when it comes to drug overdose situations.
"We don't want to unnecessarily lose lives when people are worried about prosecution when all they do is call 911," said McGinnis, who noted the surge in heroin use across the state is troubling. McGinnis said he would probably vote for the bill but said there would be plenty of fact-gathering and people to hear from in the meantime.
Rep. Jerry Stern, R-Martinsburg, agreed with the concept of removing a disincentive that might keep people from seeking medical help when someone overdoses.
"It didn't make sense to me that you were risking an arrest just to save a person's life," said Stern, who added that if someone is responsible enough to call 911 or try to get help for an overdose victim, then they deserve consideration under the circumstances.
Naloxone a concern
As for putting drugs like naloxone in the hands on nonmedical professionals, Stern said he was wary. Any such system would have to be well-monitored and restricted, he said, although he wanted to learn more about it before making up his mind.
McGinnis said he also had concerns about supplying naloxone to other nonmedical professionals such as police, who McGinnis said shouldn't have to worry about the possible legal implications or other burdens that might come with it.
"I'd have to hear from the law enforcement community as to how they feel about it," McGinnis said.
Blair County drug prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Pete Weeks, said he wasn't familiar with the particular bill, but said from a prosecutor's standpoint, there would be some concerns, one of which is the potential for a good Samaritan law to hamper one positive effect of the criminal justice system on opiate addicts - it often spurs them to seek treatment. Weeks said he would have to look more closely at the bill and discuss it with District Attorney Richard Consiglio before he could say much about the issue.
"Obviously, we want people to call 911 to save a life," Weeks said. Still, removing the threat of prosecution also means less of a wakeup call to drug users in the event of an overdose, and Weeks pointed out that it often takes legal action to compel people to go into a drug treatment program.