What is Steve’s Law?
Every state in the country is battling an opioid epidemic. In Minnesota, drug overdose deaths increased 11% between 2014 and 2015. During the most recently recorded year, 2015, 572 people died from drug overdoses. An overwhelming majority of the overdose deaths were due to opioids. Steve’s Law, passed in 2014, gives first responders the ability to carry opioid antagonists on emergency calls. It also protects individuals who call 911 in overdose crises from liability.
The Opioid Problem in Minnesota
The opioid problem in most states began the same way – with legal prescriptions. Pharmaceutical manufacturers used exaggerated marketing information to label many opioids as low risk for addiction. Physicians moved from prescribing opioids for surgery and end of life care to prescribing them for chronic pain management.
Over the last 30 years, physician prescription practices mirrored national practices regarding opioid recommendations. In 2015, in the midst of a nationwide opioid crisis, the state adopted a more conservative approach to prescribing opioids for pain relief. Unfortunately, opioid addictions do not go away when a doctor stops signing off on a prescription.
As physicians stop prescribing opioids including fentanyl, oxycodone, hydrocodone, methadone, and other narcotics, addicts turn to a cheaper and more widely available opioid – heroin. They smoke it, inject it, and snort it to achieve a feeling of euphoria and painlessness.
The opioid problem in Minnesota crosses socioeconomic, age, and ethnicity lines. While many people need to take opioids a few times to develop a physical addiction, some develop a mental addiction in their first experiences.
How do Opioids Work in the Body?
The body naturally releases opioids (endorphins) that bind with opioid receptors in the brain during certain activities. When released, these natural feel-good chemicals deliver a rush of pleasure and minimize the experience of pain throughout the body. Heroin and opioid prescriptions bind with the brain’s natural opioid receptors to block pain and deliver an experience of euphoria.
With continued use, a person’s natural ability to release endorphins diminishes, and he or she may begin to crave the experience of the endorphin imposter. Users also develop a tolerance to opioid dosage and need to take ever increasing amounts to experience the same “high.”
The good feeling resulting from the use of an outside opioid is not risk free. The same mechanisms that dull the sensation of pain also depress respiration. If someone takes too much, they can begin to lose oxygen and suffocate. Without an antidote such as naloxone to counteract the effect, a user may die of an overdose.
The Importance of Steve’s Law in the Opioid Battle
Steve’s Law, named for Steve Rummler, was unanimously passed in 2014. Rummler died of a heroin overdose in 2011. Like many others, his addiction began with legally prescribed opioid painkillers. The bill’s author, Senator Chris Eaton, personally understood the heart- wrenching devastation of an overdose death. His own daughter died of an overdose at the age of 23. The person she was using with failed to call 911. He was more afraid of the legal consequences than he was concerned with saving her life.
Is a Physician Ever Liable for Opioid Addiction?
In most cases, courts will not find prescribing physicians liable for opioid addiction. If a patient abused the prescription and then moved into illegal substance abuse, the onus remains on the user. However, some unique cases may represent acts of malpractice. A physician who knowingly prescribes a narcotic to a former heroin user, for example, may be guilty of malpractice.
In a less clear example of liability, a physician may also bear responsibility for failing to help a patient find a pain management solution beyond narcotic use. Every case is different and may include different elements of personal and professional responsibility.