Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Cautionary Instruction: Immunity for those who call for help

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
August 5, 2011

Last week, New York became the latest state to adopt a 911 Good Samaritan law to fight drug overdoses. The law bars arrests and prosecution for possession of drugs, paraphernalia or underage drinking when someone calls for help to save the life of an overdose victim. New Mexico was the first state to enact a statewide 911 Good Samaritan law in 2007.

The incidents of overdose have risen significantly nationwide and are responsible for more than 28,000 deaths annually. In Allegheny County, the rate of overdose deaths has risen at an even higher rate than the nationwide rate.

Between 1980 and 1990 there was an average of 58 overdose fatalities per year reported in Allegheny County. The number of overdoses has increased each year since 1998. In 2006, the medical examiner reported 252 fatal overdoses for the year—the highest number of overdoses ever recorded in the county. There are more overdose deaths in Allegheny County than deaths from auto accidents and homicide -- combined.

As it now stands in most states, people who dial 911, drop a friend off at a hospital, or otherwise try to get care for someone in the midst of a drug overdose are subject to prosecution for drug use, possession, or distribution. Drug users fear arrest, so much so, that they would forgo dialing 911 for a friend in the midst of a medical emergency. This tragedy is repeated in countless cases across the country.

Multiple studies show that most deaths actually occur one to three hours after the victim has initially ingested or injected drugs. The time that elapses before an overdose becomes a fatality presents a vital opportunity to intervene and seek medical help. It has been estimated that only between 10 percent and 56 percent of individuals who witness a drug overdose call for emergency medical services, with most of those doing so only after other attempts to revive the overdose victim have proved unsuccessful.

In Pennsylvania, Senate Bill 351 provides for Good Samaritan civil immunity for the use of an automated external defibrillator in the case of a heart attack. There is no similar 911 Good Samaritan legislation in Pennsylvania. Washington and Connecticut have passed 911 Good Samaritan laws. California, Illinois and Nebraska are considering similar legislation.

The issue is not being completely ignored. A number of local colleges and universities have extended 911 Good Samaritan immunity to campus incidents of overdose and the Allegheny County Department of Human Services has established Every Life is Worth Saving -- a community-wide initiative to address the issue of overdose in Allegheny County.

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