WASHINGTON, DC – Seeking to combat the growing national drug overdose epidemic, U.S. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) today introduced the Overdose Prevention Act.  This legislation would expand access to naloxone, as well as drug overdose prevention programs that have been proven to save lives.  

Drug overdose death rates in the U.S. have more than tripled since 1990, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  And USA Today reports that heroin and related opioid pain pills have killed more than 125,000 in the U.S. in the past decade.  Over half of the drug overdoses reported in 2011 were attributable to opioids, including prescription pain relievers and heroin, and nearly 9 out of 10 poisoning deaths nationally are now caused by drugs.

Rhode Island ranks among the highest in the country for illicit drug use per capita, non-medical use of prescription pain relievers, and per capita overdose deaths.  During the first three months of 2014 alone, more than 70 Rhode Islanders died of overdoses.

“I’ve heard from both Dr. Fine and Colonel O’Donnell on this issue and I appreciate their leadership and efforts.  We can’t let more young people fall victim to heroin and opioid abuse.  This is a serious public health and safety problem in Rhode Island and communities across the country.  A lot of cities and towns don’t want to admit it, but this is a growing problem that cuts across social and economic boundaries and we need to take action or it will continue to get worse,” warned Reed.  “The Overdose Prevention Act will establish a comprehensive national response to this epidemic.  It emphasizes collaboration between state and federal officials and employs best practices from the medical community.  And it invests in programs and treatments that have been proven effective to combat this startling national trend.  This is an emergency and it requires a coordinated and comprehensive response.  The Overdose Prevention Act brings together first responders, medical personnel, addiction treatment specialists, social service providers, and families to help save lives and get at the root of this problem.”

The Overdose Prevention Act aims to decrease the rate of drug overdose deaths by improving access to naloxone, a drug that counters the effects of an opioid overdose.  Naloxone has no side effects or potential for abuse, and is widely recognized as an important tool to help prevent drug overdose deaths, but many communities struggle to get naloxone to those on the front lines who need it most.  The bill would also encourage the implementation of overdose prevention programs, improve surveillance of overdose occurrences, and establish a coordinated federal plan of action to address the epidemic.

Specifically, the bill would authorize the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to award funding through cooperative agreements to eligible entities – like public health agencies or community-based organizations with expertise in preventing overdose deaths.  As a condition of participation, an entity would use the grant to purchase and distribute naloxone, and carry out overdose prevention activities, such as educating prescribers and pharmacists or training first responders and others on how to recognize the signs of an overdose, seek emergency medical help, and administer naloxone and other first aid.

The Overdose Prevention Act is cosponsored by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Ed Markey (D-MA), and mirrors legislation championed in the U.S. House of Representatives by Congresswoman Donna Edwards (D-MD).

A federally-funded study by the CDC released last year found that increasing access to naloxone and overdose prevention activities are effective at reducing deaths from opioid overdoses.  A CDC report issued in 2012 found that overdose prevention programs have saved more than 10,100 lives since 1996.

As rates of overdose deaths continue to spike, public health agencies, law enforcement, and others are struggling to keep up without accurate and timely information about the epidemic.  Therefore, the Overdose Prevention Act would also require HHS to take steps to improve surveillance and research of drug overdose deaths, such as:

  • Authorize HHS to award cooperative agreements to eligible entities looking to improve fatal and nonfatal drug overdose surveillance and reporting capabilities;
  • Require HHS, in consultation with a task force comprised of stakeholders, to develop and submit to Congress a plan to reduce the number of deaths occurring from overdoses of drugs;
  • Require the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director to prioritize research on drug overdose and overdose prevention.

Americans aged 25 to 64 are now more likely to die as a result of a drug overdose than from injuries sustained in motor vehicle traffic crashes.  While overdoses from illegal drugs persist as a major public health problem, fatal overdoses from prescribed opioid pain medications such as oxycodone account now for more than 40 percent of all overdose deaths.

The Rhode Island community has been significantly impacted by this tragic national trend, as Rhode Island Public Radio documented in their hour-long "Killer Drugs: Tackling Opioid Addiction and Overdose" piece and The Providence Journal has illustrated in their ongoing “Overdosed” series.

Earlier this year, the Rhode Island Board of Pharmacy, local doctors, and a pharmacy chain teamed up to address the drug overdose crisis in a creative way.  Through a “collaborative practice agreement,” some Rhode Island pharmacies are dispensing naloxone, along with training about its proper use, to anyone who walks in and requests the treatment, no prescription necessary.  In addition, the Rhode Island State Police now carry naloxone in every cruiser.

“I’m glad Rhode Island is taking steps to combat this scourge and leading the way in adopting creative solutions, but there’s more work to be done at the federal level,” Reed added.  “We are losing too many neighbors and friends to heroin addiction and overdose, and it’s essential that we come together in a bipartisan, results-driven way to get the necessary resources to the front lines of this battle, where they’ll be most effective at saving lives and preventing tragedy.”

The Overdose Prevention Act is supported by the Trust for America’s Health, the Drug Policy Alliance, and the Harm Reduction Coalition.