Kansas is one of three states that doesn’t allow first responders to carry a drug to reverse opioid overdoses.
Rep. Greg Lakin, a Republican from Wichita, wants to get the state off that exclusive list. A bill in the House Health and Human Services Committee would allow first responders to carry medication to reverse opioid overdoses.
Under current Kansas law, doctors can only prescribe overdose-reversing drugs to a person who is at risk of an overdose, such as someone using opioids for chronic pain.
When first responders arrive at the scene of an overdose, they have to try to keep the person breathing long enough to reach a hospital, where doctors can administer drugs to counteract it, Lakin said. Not every patient makes it, particularly in rural areas without a hospital nearby, he said.
“Right now we don’t empower first responders to have it,” he said. “This just buys them time.”
The bill also would establish a protocol for pharmacists to dispense overdose-reversing drugs without a doctor’s prescription, said Jody Reel, chairwoman of the Kansas Pharmacists Association’s government affairs committee. It would require the pharmacist to educate the person seeking the medication about how to administer it, potential side effects, options for drug treatment and the legal requirement to call 911 if a person has overdosed.
Opioid epidemic elsewhere
Kansas has been spared the worst of the opioid epidemic, which has overflowed morgues in Ohio and forced first responders to scramble in hard-hit cities. Still, overdose deaths in Wichita are up from seven in 2015 to 21 in 2016, Lakin said. The state doesn’t keep a central record of overdoses.
The bill doesn’t specify the type of medication pharmacists could dispense, but the only widely available product is naloxone. Naloxone blocks opioids from attaching to receptors in the brain, stopping an overdose. Reel said pharmacists supported the decision not to name specific medications.
“As new drugs come on the market that might be better than naloxone, we could use those,” she said.
The Kansas Medical Society, State Board of Pharmacy and several law enforcement agencies submitted testimony in favor of expanding access to naloxone. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation also supported the bill but wanted it expanded to include its laboratory technicians, who might overdose after accidental exposure to drugs during testing. The Kansas branch of the American College of Nurse-Midwives opposed it because they weren’t included in the list of medical professionals shielded from liability if they used naloxone on a patient.
The committee could vote on the bill as early as Thursday. Lakin said he hopes it will pass through the Legislature quickly.
“People … could die in the meantime,” he said.
Other bills would expand drug treatment
Three other bills to expand access to drug treatment appear less likely to move forward.
The bills, proposed by the Kansas Sentencing Commission, would allow more people to access treatment under a bill passed in 2003 that allows treatment and community supervision for people convicted of non-violent drug possession offenses.
House Bill 2087 would allow courts to offer diversion to people charged with drug possession before they are convicted.
A second bill, House Bill 2090, would strike a rule making prison the default sentence for offenders convicted of drug possession three times. Judges still can sentence people with multiple convictions for drug possession to probation or treatment, but they have to find a reason to depart from the sentencing guidelines.
The third bill, House Bill 2088, would allow diversion for people charged with distributing small amounts of drugs: less than 3.5 grams of cocaine, less than 25 grams of marijuana or less than 1 gram of methamphetamine or heroin.
Scott Schultz, executive director of the Kansas Sentencing Commission, said treatment in the community generally produces better results than imprisonment, though people may relapse multiple times as they recover.
“You don’t fall off the wagon once or twice,” he said.
Victor Riggin, vice president of the Kansas Narcotic Officers Association, said the bills would make it more difficult for police to keep communities safe.
But Stuart Little, who lobbies for the Kansas Community Corrections Association, took the opposite view: Outpatient treatment likely would work, he said, but the state hasn’t provided enough funding to serve more patients.
In practice, it may not matter which view is correct, said Rep. Russ Jennings, who chairs the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee. Expanding treatment would cost money the state doesn’t have, he said.
“The unfortunate truth is that the state is in such a financial quagmire that there are many good ideas that we’re not going to be able to do” this year, he said. “It doesn’t mean we’re never going to be able to do them.”
Meg Wingerter is a reporter for KMUW’s Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and KCUR covering health, education and politics in Kansas. You can reach her on Twitter @MegWingerter.