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One resolution and five bills, all related to Utah's current opioid "epidemic," passed through the Senate Health and Human Services Committee Monday, gaining momentum with unanimous support on the way to the Senate floor. They already have been approved by the House.
HCR4 declared deaths in the state related to drug overdose a public health emergency and advocated to "direct appropriate resources to reducing the number of drug overdose deaths in Utah."
Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, said opioid overdose is a universal problem because "everyone knows someone" who is struggling with addiction or has died from it.
Moss sponsored HB238, which broadens who can legally administer the drug Naloxone to reverse the effects of an overdose. She said under a 2014 law, a doctor could provide someone with a kit to save loved ones who overdose, but "in a rural area, you don't have doctors available, you don't have pharmacies available."
"To really have an effect and save more lives, it has to get out to more people and organizations on the front lines," said Moss, a retired high school teacher.
Those who spoke during public comment all seemed to favor the legislation, but drew attention to a trend that in states where similar laws have passed, the price of the antidote usually increases "to an alarming degree."
"What we've seen in other states ... is the doubling and the tripling of the cost of this drug as a result," said Kelly Atkinson, of the Utah Health Insurance Association. "We're going to monitor that really carefully this next year, and we'll be back to the committee if we see that."
Sam Plumb, current programs manager for Utah Naloxone, who was representing the University of Utah Department of Pediatrics, said that currently his organization provides kits, which costs about $17.50 each, for free. He said the group has provided 1,400 kits statewide in about six months, and at least 25 lives had been saved through their use.
"It seems like we are looking at treating a symptom, rather than addressing a cause," said Wayne Jones, director of government relations for the Utah Pharmacy Association. "[But] we would ask that the Legislature support the funding for this, as it will save lives until we can find out the cause."
Reps. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, and Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, each sponsored two bills that went "hand-in-hand" with Moss' bill.
"The idea with this bill is, let's get a drug like Naloxone in the hands of those who will see a problem first," McKell said of HB192, second substitute, which would allow the Department of Health to allocate grants and educate those interested in access to an opiate antidote drug.
Eliason's HB240 also attempts to make Naloxone more available so it can give a person "a second chance at life." The proposal would authorize people acting for a physician, such as a health department director or employee, to "issue a standing prescription order" for the antidote.
He said a father from his district who lost a son to an overdose helped to spur drafting of this bill.
"This could have saved his son's life," Eliason said. "[We can't] put a price tag on saving a life, if it's $15 or $38 or $38,000."
Access to this drug is obviously important for people with addictions, but could also be used in scenarios where a small child or someone else overdoses on medication by accident, he said.
The drug Naloxone is "about as harmless as a drug can be," according to Eliason, even if it is taken by someone who hasn't overdosed on opioids.
But Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, noted that once the drug is administered, additional medical care is required because Naloxone will often wear off before an opioid does, once again sending a person into the state of an overdose.
Eliason also discussed his second bill, which would implement a state syringe-exchange program where individuals would be educated about treatment and testing options, both verbally and with a pamphlet.
"The evidence clearly shows this does not encourage substance abuse. These people are already in the throes of it," he said. "This simply reduces the harm."
McKell's second bill, HB239, would make public and accessible a database containing information that the state has on opioid distribution and abuse.