EDITORIAL: Revise and improve Good Samaritan Act

York Dispatch

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

That could easily have been the title of a state law passed in September 2014 to counter the spiking numbers of heroin- and opioid-related overdose fatalities in York County and throughout Pennsylvania.

It is actually called the Good Samaritan Act. The law prevents both a third party who calls for help during an overdose and the person who is overdosing from subsequently facing criminal prosecution.

Unfortunately, it has bumped against another law: That of unintended consequences.

As the Dispatch’s Jana Benscoter reported on Wednesday, local police are rescuing overdose victims – sometimes repeatedly – only to see them return to using. Thanks to the Good Samaritan laws, they are free of not only legal consequences but, in too many cases, personal accountability.

That leaves law enforcement frustrated, users at risk for repeat overdoses and society dealing with a drug-abusing population that continues to present public health and safety concerns.

The law needs to be amended to address this shortcoming.

Certainly, the original legislation made sense: fear of criminal reprisals was discouraging those on the scene of an overdose from calling for medical help. And with the increased availability of heroin and other opioids, drug fatalities were on the rise.

There were 70 overdoses in York County last year, according to County Coroner Pam Gay’s office, up from 64 in 2015.

That unfortunate trend is certain to continue this year, with Gay reporting 65 overdose deaths through the first eight months of 2017, with another 19 suspected.

But the figures could have been far worse, absent Narcan-equipped police and emergency responders. Likely reacting in at least some cases to calls that came in owing to Good Samaritan laws, they made 232 “saves” in 2016, Gay reported.

That is not just commendable; it’s amazing.

But it does no good to save someone in 2016 only to see them become a fatal statistic in 2017. As Penn Township Police Chief Jim Laughlin told Benscoter, the Good Samaritan Act has left police officers powerless to break a continuing cycle of overdoses.

That’s why state lawmakers need to act on legislation proposed by state Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming, to amend the law to excuse criminal charges only if the overdose victim participates in a drug treatment program.

No drug treatment, no leniency.

Encouraging medical intervention is exactly what’s needed. Arresting addicts does little to break the dependency or address the related health complications, to say nothing of the physical, emotional and mental issues that spur and/or exacerbate drug use. Far better to open the door to treatment and counseling.

And, sensibly, Yaw’s bill would not penalize those who call 911 to report an overdose.

Law enforcement and health officials agree, and, hopefully, state lawmakers will follow suit: The Good Samaritan Act provided the urgent action needed to reduce drug fatalities in the throes of a statewide epidemic, but it now must be improved.

State leaders have taken the necessary steps to save lives. Now, they must work to change them.