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With Closing of Loophole, EMTs Can Now Administer Overdose Antidote

Clarifying existing law, waiver will allows first responders to give potentially life-saving drug to victims of heroin and opioid ODs

Mary O'Dowd
Credit: NJTV
State Health Commissioner Mary O'Dowd

New Jersey's so-called Good Samaritan law, signed last year by Gov. Chris Christie, provides immunity for those who contact emergency responders after an overdose occurs -- as well as to those who help save the lives of victims by administering an antidote known as nalaxone.

But due to a legal loophole, the Overdose Prevention Act did not apply specifically to EMTs, which meant that they could not use nalaxone, which is sold under the trade name Narcan.

That loophole was closed last week when the administration signed a waiver ending the unintentional restriction on emergency medical personnel.

The problem can be traced to the fact that the federal scope-of-practice guidelines and state regulations that govern which drugs EMTs can administer didn’t include naloxone.

“No one foresaw this confusion, but the administration acted quickly once it saw there was some confusion,” said Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey director of the Drug Policy Alliance and a chief advocate for the state law.

Narcan works by counteracting the life-threatening slowing of the nervous and respiratory systems caused by heroin and opioid overdoses. Once EMTs are trained in using it, they'll be able to add it to their medical arsenal.

The office of Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph D. Coronato has been preparing local departments ahead of the waiver, which was signed by Health Commissioner Mary E. O’Dowd on Thursday.

“We’re absolutely thrilled” with the waiver, said Coronato spokesman Al Della Fave.

Coronato’s office began training representatives of each of 33 Ocean County EMT squads in the fall. Della Fave said these representatives will serve as trainers for each of their local departments and should be able to train local EMTs within two to three weeks.

Scotti said supporters of the original Overdose Prevention Act believed emergency responders would have access to naloxone once the law was enacted.

“Everyone assumed that, you know, you’re having expanded access to naloxone -- the first people you want to have administer it would be the EMTs,” said Scotti, who also said she was thrilled with the waiver.

“They were waiting for the clarification and this gives them the green light” to administer the drug, Scotti said. “This is going to save a lot of lives and it’s great that they can move forward with it.”

Scotti, who’s undergone the training, said the drug – which can be administered using a nasal spray – is simple to use.

Christie said in a statement that the waiver would save lives and was consistent with the new state law.

"We want to encourage people to seek medical assistance when a drug overdose occurs,” Christie said.

The waiver also applies to police officer who are also EMTs.

“Every minute counts in an emergency overdose situation, so having first responders carry and administer this medication may mean the difference between life and death,” O’Dowd said in a statement.

Drug-related deaths increased from 1,026 in 2011 to 1,294 in 2012, according to the Office of the State Medical Examiner. The issue was explored in a report by a task force appointed by the Governor’s Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse. It recommended that the state require doctors to use the New Jersey Prescription Monitoring Program and establish “recovery high schools” where students can study while avoiding the environments in which they became addicted.

Christie’s proposed budget for the fiscal year starting on July 1 includes an additional $4.5 million to expand the state’s mandatory drug court program and to fund a substance abuse treatment program that integrates employment services.

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