York County chief: Heroin addicts saved by Narcan need more help
Dozens of people in York County have been saved by police officer-administered naloxone since departments were issued the life-saving drug in March.
But one Hanover-area police chief took issue Tuesday with the lack of required treatment and rehab for addicts saved by naloxone, commonly known by the brand name Narcan.
"Where is the responsibility of one's actions?" asked Chief James Laughlin of Penn Township Police. "There should be some form of responsibility for the individuals we've just saved."
Laughlin was one of more than two dozen local and state experts who provided testimony during a four-hour Center for Rural Pennsylvania hearing on heroin and opioid treatment held at the Yorktowne Hotel in York City.
The center's board of directors includes Pennsylvania legislators and representatives from Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's office and academia. The center addresses issues facing rural parts of the state.
Deaths: Heroin-related deaths in the state have increased sharply over the past couple of years. There were 584 deaths in 2011, but that number jumped to 887 in 2012, the most recent year data was available, according to the state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs.
"This addiction doesn't care what color you are, what your economic status is," said Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria County.
In 2014, York County had 62 heroin and heroin-related deaths, according to the coroner's office.
So far this year, there have been 21 heroin-related deaths and nine that are suspected to be linked to heroin.
But the death toll would have been much higher if not for Narcan, said York County chief deputy prosecutor Dave Sunday.
Since police were issued Narcan earlier this year, they have used it 40 times to save the lives of people overdosing, he said.
Narcan: As part of his testimony, Laughlin said administering Narcan is a good start, but more must be done to get people off the drug after their lives are saved and to hold them accountable for their actions.
As it works now, when a police officer administers Narcan, the person is taken to a hospital for initial treatment and given information about further treatment before being released, the chief said.
"I can tell you very few (people) are thrilled to open their eyes to see a police officer or an EMT standing over them," Laughlin said. "If you think they are looking in the mirror and turning their life around, that's not happening."
Instead of simply releasing an addict with only information, Laughlin recommended charging the person who overdosed and sending them through a treatment court that requires them to undergo rehabilitation.
If the person successfully completes the program, the charges would be dropped, he said.
"This could possibly provide the individual with the help they have been avoiding," Laughlin said.
Immunity: However, under the Good Samaritan provision of the 2014 law that allowed police and others to administer Narcan, immunity is granted to those who are saved by Narcan and to most people, even those who are on heroin, who report an overdose.
Proponents at the time of the law's passage said immunity is key in encouraging people to call 911. Without it, they said, some people may not report an overdose for fear of facing charges.
Using Narcan is just the first step in helping a heroin user, state Rep. Kate Klunk, R-Hanover, said after the hearing.
"It's that next step, though, in making sure that those users get the treatment, and that is where I think we can do some work," she said.
Other testimony: Numerous experts during the hearing said treatment and education are essential in combating heroin use.
Calling immunity a fantastic tool, Sunday said more has to be done locally to spread the word about it. Some ideas being kicked around include giving out informational cards to known heroin users and putting up billboards in the area.
"A lot of the individuals don't know the immunity exist," Sunday said.
Pam Gay, the York County coroner, said she'd like to see rehabilitation move towards medicine-based treatment, such as methadone, instead of abstinence-based.
Of the 21 people who have died in heroin-related deaths in York County so far this year, 70 percent had recently left rehab or prison or were trying to kick the habit, she said.
"Get rid of the stigma that you're replacing one (drug) with another," Gay said of methadone. "We are replacing death with life."
— Reach Greg Gross at firstname.lastname@example.org.