An uncontroversial bill with bipartisan support achieved a close-to-unprecedented feat of accomplishment Monday, when the Alaska State House passed Senate Bill 23.
SB23 is sponsored by longtime Senator Johnny Ellis (D-Anchorage), and is aimed at making a lifesaving drug that reverses the effects of a heroin overdose available to the public. The bill also removes civil liability for healthcare providers prescribing Naloxone, marketed under the brand name Narcan. Naloxone is not a controlled substance, is not addictive, and has no effect if mistakenly administered to someone not experiencing an overdose.
The drug acts as an opioid antagonist, and can prevent effects like the stoppage of breathing and loss of consciousness that happen during an overdose. Administering the drug can provide emergency reponders an extra 30 to 90 minutes to get to — and treat — someone overdosing on heroin, oxycodone, oxycontin, and other opioids.
A press release sent out by the Senate Democrats Monday noted the need for the legislation:
Opioid overdoses constitute a growing public health threat nationally, and have reached epidemic proportions in Alaska. According to the Alaska State Troopers’ 2013 Annual Drug Report there has been a huge uptick of heroin and other opiate abuse. In 2008, the rate of prescription overdose deaths in Alaska was more than twice that of the United States overall (14.2 versus 6.5 per 100,000 persons). 79% of the overdoses in Alaska were due to opioids. The Anchorage Police Department reported a 94% increase in heroin seizures in 2013, and heroin-related overdoses are now claiming more young lives than traffic fatalities.
The proposal would require recipients to secure a prescription from a physician as well as training on how to use it. Kate Burkhart, executive director of the Advisory Board on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse and the Alaska Mental Health Board (AMHB), described that training in a committee hearing last year as fairly simple. She compared it to an Epinephrine Autoinjector (EpiPen), and said that both the Advisory Board and AMHB support the measure.
The bill was first introduced in January of last year, where it slowly moved through the Senate. The measure took nearly two months to receive its first hearing and would take nearly another month before coming to the Senate floor for a vote.
Support for SB23 includes the Alaska Pharmacists Association, Narcotic Drug Treatment Center, Alaska State and Hospital Nursing Home Association, Anchorage Police Department Employees Association, Alaska State Medical Association, Alaska Nurse Practitioners Association, Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, the Alaska Mental Health Board Advisory Board on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, and dozens of private citizens who weighed in during public testimony.
“I’m hoping with that good level of support and no known opposition, I hope that Alaska will be the 29th state to pass a relatively small bill that could be the difference between life and death,” Ellis told his colleagues on the Senate floor last year. “In 2014 alone, 76 Alaskans died from opioid overdose. These are Alaska friends, neighbors, children, parents, who could still be alive today had this lifesaving drug been available.”
SB23 passed the Senate 19-1, with only Sen. Charlie Huggins (R-Wasilla) voting against.
Huggins did not speak to his objection.
The House did not hear the bill before the end of session and was not included in the subsequent special sessions. The House Health and Social Services took it up in late January, and it was singled out as the only non-budgetary bill that the lower chamber would consider before a budget was passed.
“In the House, we’ve taken historic action and stopped bill work and focused on the budget, and fixing the budget. As a member of Finance, I’m supportive of that move,” Rep. Lynn Gattis (R-Wasilla) said on the floor Monday. “We must focus on the budget and fix our fiscal house. But I also applaud leadership for recognizing that this is a life and death issue [and] for making an exception for this incredibly unique and critically important bill.”
She additionally thanked Ellis — and his former and current staff who were present for the vote — for reaching across the aisle and working with her on the effort. Finally, she pointed out SB23 was the last bill that late Rep. Max Gruenberg (D-Anchorage) worked on, and his changes were present in the final version of the bill. Gattis said that the bill was partly in honor to him.
“The teaching moment is that we all need to do a better job listening to each other across party lines when we start talking facts. We can check them out, see if they’re true, see if they’re not true, but this one has been true for a long time,” Rep. Les Gara (D-Anchorage) added. “It is heartening to see the whole legislature move ahead to try and address this issue.”
Which is what makes the passage of SB23 nearly unprecedented. Up until Monday’s vote, the minority caucus serving in the 29th Legislature had seen just two bills sponsored by minority members pass. That’s a little under three percent of legislation passed.
“Naloxone” was mispronounced more times during Monday’s discussion on the bill than minority-sponsored bills have been passed over the last two years leading up to Monday’s vote.
As Austin Baird noted, it’s the first bill with a Senate Democrat as the primary sponsor to pass since April of 2014.
SB23 passed unanimously out of the House, 36-0. Governor Bill Walker (I-Alaska) has stated his support and intent to sign it into law.
Hopefully this is a sign of more cooperation in the future. But, if not, it still represents a significant sign of progress in Alaska’s battle against the heroin epidemic.