By Kirk Carapezza
Lawmakers are spending most of their time this week on the House and Senate floor, debating a dizzying number of bills – from a gas tax to a social media bill.
Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee is finalizing a wide-ranging piece of legislation designed to strengthen Vermont’s response to prescription drug addiction. Among other things, the legislation would provide better access to the state’s prescription monitoring system – a move supporters say would help control Vermont’s drug problem. And public health and law enforcement officials are championing the measure, saying it would save lives.
“It’s clear that we have a challenging problem with opiate addiction and substance abuse in Vermont,” said Commissioner of Health Harry Chen, whose office estimates that Vermont sees about 50 deaths every year by unintentional overdoses. “We have some of the highest substance abuse rates in the nation.”
Chen said the prescription drug monitoring system is only effective if physicians are required to use it. Last year, a similar bill got bottled up in committee largely because lawmakers disputed giving police access to the state’s drug records.
While opiate addiction has spiked in recent years, Chen and others have said the state needs a more comprehensive approach.
The Judiciary Committee is also preparing a companion bill that would create limited criminal liability for a person who is present when someone is potentially having an opiate overdose.
Rep. Bill Lippert, D-Hinesburg, said the point of the bill is to encourage people “to call 911 to assist the person who is in physical danger, and hopefully to stay with them until emergency EMTs can get there.”
This month, during public hearings, law enforcement officials in Massachusetts told lawmakers that this kind of criminal immunity has proven effective without condoning opiate use.
“On a bipartisan basis, the members of the House Judiciary Committee have endorsed this bill in order to save Vermonters’ lives,” Lippert said. “The moment of the overdose needs to be a moment when we are focusing on saving lives.”
“That’s the priority,” he added.
The House is scheduled to debate the two drug prescription bills on the floor Thursday.