Law enforcement to lawmakers: Revisit 'Good Samaritan' overdose law

Jana Benscoter
York Dispatch
  • York County Coroner Pam Gay said as of Tuesday, Aug. 29, York County year-to-date has recorded 65 confirmed heroin-related overdoses, and an additional 19 are suspected.
  • Police officers say they are powerless in a continuing cycle of overdoses.

Steve Gebhart vividly recalls seeing a pregnant woman revived after she overdosed on heroin.

Shaken by the experience, the Penn Township Police officer went home after his shift and hugged his children.

"It's hard to see as a parent," said Gebhart, noting the potentially irreversible harm the woman was doing to her unborn child.

 As a parent and a sworn officer of the law, it's difficult to just stand by, he said. 

But because of Pennsylvania's Good Samaritan Act, Gebhart and others in law enforcement say, sometimes that's all they can do.

The legislation, signed into law in September 2014, was intended to reduce the number of fatal overdoses by removing the fear of prosecution that sometimes discouraged people from summoning medical help.

Under the law, neither the person who calls for help nor the person who overdoses can be charged.

Yet, the act is not having its intended effect, Gebhart and Penn Township Police Chief Jim Laughlin said. What it has done, they say, is leave police officers powerless to break a continuing cycle of overdoses.

Accountability needed: Laughlin said unless police officers are granted the authority to criminally charge heroin users and to collect information on heroin-related situations, nothing's going to change.

That's evident in the number of heroin deaths and overdoses recorded in spite of the Good Samaritan Act, he said.

York County Coroner Pam Gay said as of Aug. 29, York County has had 65 confirmed heroin-related overdoses this year, and an additional 19 are suspected.

Without some form of accountability, Laughlin said, heroin addicts — those who use and those who overdose — aren't genuinely being helped. Police officers, he continued, revive overdose victims and then literally watch them walk away. 

Penn Township officer Steve Gebhart shows an automated external defibrillator (AED) Friday, Aug. 11, 2017, which officers use to stimulate heartbeat in patients, including those overdosed on heroin. Bill Kalina photo

Laughlin said he'd appreciate it if lawmakers viewed the act from his perspective, which is why he's not opposed to state Sen. Gene Yaw's new legislative caveat. 

Lycoming County Republican Sen. Gene Yaw wants to tweak language in the Good Samaritan Act. Submitted/photo

Senate Bill 654, known as the Drug Overdose Good Samaritan Law Amendment, would make immunity from prosecution contingent on the person participating in a drug-treatment program within 30 days of their overdose.

Yaw, R-Lycoming, said he has heard from law enforcement and emergency responders that "the same individual who has experienced a drug overdose four or more times refuses treatment once revived with Naloxone."

He said individuals "suffering from an opioid or other drug-related overdose" have been receiving a "free pass."  

"It is vitally important that we get them into treatment as quickly as possible," Yaw said. "If they refuse treatment, they can face imminent jail time. My legislation does not eliminate the immunity provision for those people who call 911 to report an overdose."

York County chief deputy prosecutor Dave Sunday said that the heroin being sold by drug dealers is the most lethal it has been throughout the opioid epidemic.
(Staff photo)

Lethal drug: Not only is heroin lethal, but its effects are time-consuming, Laughlin said. 

His officers, he said, can spend hours responding to an overdose, administering the overdose-reversing drug Narcan and filling out paperwork. And in the end, they are not making an arrest. 

York County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Dave Sunday said "no law is perfect" but he would  like lawmakers to make changes to the Good Samaritan Act. 

During the three years the act has been in place, he said, "the same people are being saved repeatedly."

Sunday  said dealers are now selling heroin that's so potent the first hit of fentanyl-laced heroin could also be a user's last.

"It could take four, five, or six Narcan hits to keep them alive," said Sunday, who is running unopposed for district attorney in the November election. "They don't know what's in it. Visually, pure fentanyl appears to be pure heroin."

Executive Director of the York Regional Opiate Collaborative Dr. Matt Howie. Submitted/photo

Habitual pattern: The problem with the Good Samaritan Act is that it allows the same person to overdose and to be revived, but it doesn't address how to change the users' pattern, according to Gebhart. 

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Revived addicts often become enraged when accused of using heroin, he said.

Getting them to admit to a drug problem is challenging, Laughlin added. 

After an overdose: Dr. Matt Howie, executive director of the York Regional Opiate Collaborative, said Pennsylvania's medical community could become more proactive in its approach after a reported overdose.

However, he said he's concerned there's not enough resources — from hospital beds to space in treatment facilities — to execute Yaw's proposed change to the law. 

State Sen. Scott Wagner, R-Spring Garden Township, said he thinks Yaw's legislation is a step in the right direction. 

"We want to see those who are struggling with addiction succeed," he said. "This is a crisis. We need to be doing everything we can to solve this crisis. There are addicts who are getting Narcan treatments and then coming back for more the next week."

York County Republican Sen. Scott Wagner. Submitted/photo

Gebhart and Laughlin said the only way to try to break a repetitive user's "vicious cycle" is to be proactive. Unless the law changes, they said, they "don't believe there's a light at the end of the tunnel." 

Senate Bill 654 was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, May 2.