By Dennis Hoey
Gov. Paul LePage on Wednesday vetoed a bill that would give everyone, regardless of age, easier access to the lifesaving, overdose-reversing drug naloxone.
The bill to remove age restrictions, sponsored by Rep. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, had received widespread bipartisan support from both political parties. This month, L.D. 1892 was passed unanimously by the Republican-controlled Senate and by 132-7 vote in the House of Representatives.
"Overdoses can strike anyone at any time, and in every opportunity we should be trying to save every life possible," Gideon said in a statement issued Wednesday. "We can no longer ignore the impact of this epidemic, disregard the underlying causes or the lack of access to needed treatment, and clearly, we can no longer delay access to lifesaving medicine."
According to the state Attorney General's Office, a record 418 people died from overdoses in Maine in 2017, up 11 percent from the 376 reported in 2016.
Opioids, including prescription and illicit drugs, were responsible for 354 of last year's deaths.
The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram published a 10-part series called "Lost" last year that examined the impact of the opioid crisis in Maine. The series found that although other states have similar problems, it has been exacerbated in Maine by insufficient resources and a lack of consensus on how best to combat the problem.
Under Gideon's bill, there would be no minimum age for purchasing naloxone, sold under the brand Narcan, without a prescription. The drug has proven effective at reversing overdose symptoms without adverse side effects.
Gideon urged lawmakers to override LePage's veto.
Both the House and Senate, which are expected to reconvene sometime next week, would need to muster two-thirds majorities to override.
"Every aspect of Maine's economy, community safety and family stability will continue to suffer if we do not make progress on this crisis," Gideon said.
In his veto letter, dated April 25, LePage urged the Legislature to sustain his veto.
"Maine is fortunate to have many licensed pharmacists who will use their experience and professional judgment to determine when and to whom to dispense naloxone. They don't need the Legislature's permission to make professional decisions. Licensed pharmacists will do the right thing under the rules promulgated by their oversight body, the Pharmacy Board," LePage wrote.
LePage goes on to claim that L.D. 1892 is an effort "to undermine the Maine Board of Pharmacy's efforts to adopt reasonable rules -- grounded in public safety -- for when and to whom licensed pharmacists may prescribe and dispense naloxone."
The governor called the Legislature's position "extreme," noting that Gideon's bill would allow every resident of Maine, including children, to have access to naloxone.
"This bill reflects a lack of understanding about effective ways to reduce deaths resulting from opioid overdose. The Legislature must be under the mistaken impression that deaths from opioid overdose cannot be reduced unless naloxone is provided to anyone and everyone. That will not be the case," LePage said.
LePage's veto drew a harsh reaction from Phil Bartlett, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, who noted in a media release that even Republican President Trump supports increasing access to naloxone.
"Drug overdoses know no bounds, and getting naloxone into the hands of more people would only have the result of saving more lives," Bartlett said. "But rather than work with the state Legislature to accomplish this, Governor LePage continues to demonstrate his singular ignorance surrounding this lifesaving medication, and it's going to cost Maine people their lives.
"This veto is yet another painful reminder that Governor LePage is the biggest obstacle to addressing Maine's opioid crisis."
(c)2018 Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine)