Harford County Executive Barry Glassman remains opposed to two local bills before the Maryland General Assembly on heroin overdose reporting and treatment, citing his concerns that addicts might be deterred from seeking help at the risk of criminal sanctions.
HB-15 and HB-24, co-sponsored by Dels. Kathy Szeliga and Andrew Cassilly, Republicans representing western and northern Harford, respectively, are still in the House of Delegates Health and Government Operations Committee and have not been voted upon.
One of the sponsors and other legislators say they are surprised Glassman didn't come forward sooner with his opposition, which only surfaced just prior to their committee hearings early this month.
A third bill tied to fighting the county's heroin abuse epidemic, HB-34, was killed in committee without Glassman taking a stand. Unlike the other two measures, this bill would have applied statewide by making dealing drugs within 1,000 feet of a state-licensed methadone clinic a felony criminal offense.
All three bills were introduced by Szeliga and Cassilly with the backing of Harford Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler, who stood with the two sponsors last November to announce his intention to support them.
"It generated a lot of opposition from advocates in the [addiction] field and experts and professionals in the field," Cindy Mumby, Glassman's spokesperson, said of HB-15 and HB-24.
She said advocates such as Joe Ryan, manager of the county's Office of Drug Control Policy, and leaders of local organizations that work with addicts have expressed concerns.
"It's that fear of law enforcement that can sometimes prevent individuals from seeking life-saving medical treatment," Mumby said.
"It's not to say law enforcement doesn't play a role, because it certainly does, but it's a matter of striking a balance," Mumby added. "This is really about the process of achieving our goals; the goal of preventing overdoses and preventing death is, I think, a shared goal among everyone involved in this effort."
HB-15 would require health care providers who treat a person for an overdose to report information about it to law enforcement and to the county health department within 48 hours, or face misdemeanor criminal charges, according to the original text of the bill.
Szeliga said Monday the bill is being amended so providers only have to give the general location of an overdose, such as Main Street in Bel Air, not the person's name or street address.
"The information will protect the identity of the person who overdosed," she said.
Szeliga conceded the original bill attracted some opposition, but efforts to amend the text have brought "pretty much everybody on board with this," including University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health, which operates Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air and Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace.
She said such information allows law enforcement to identify a "hotspot" of where overdoses are happening.
"The Harford County Sheriff's Office is committed to not arresting addicts, and they've made that very clear," she added. Cassilly couldn't be reached for comment.
HB-24 would first responders who administer anti-opiates such as naloxone in an overdose situation to urge the victim to immediately seek medical attention after they have been revived.
"Part of the naloxone training should include very strong language about addicts getting health care," Szeliga said.
She said people who have overdosed on heroin and are revived are still at risk for a second overdose, possibly from the heroin that is still in their systems.
Most municipal police officers in Harford, Sheriff's Office deputies and Maryland State Police troopers have been carrying naloxone, which is also known by the brand name Narcan, for the past year to administer to victims when they are called to the scene of an overdose.
Gahler testified in support of HB-15 and HB-24 before the Health and Government Operations Committee on Feb. 2. He did not submit written testimony but, according to his "speaking points" which were later supplied to The Aegis by the Sheriff's Office, Gahler said law enforcement responded to 201 heroin overdoses in Harford County during 2015, 27 of them fatal. Twenty-eight people were saved after Narcan was administered, he said.
Gahler also noted that 25 overdoses had been reported to his office this year – as of Feb 1, three that were fatal. He said HB-15 would allow law enforcement to gather "real-time" data on overdoses, identify clusters of overdoses and use that information to find the nearby drug dealers.
He stressed the need for victims who have been revived to seek follow-up care, citing an example of a Harford County Detention Center inmate who overdosed while being processed, was revived by a dose of Narcan from a corrections officer and relapsed half an hour later. The person was brought back by a second dose of Narcan.
Two letters, dated Feb. 1 and signed by Glassman's senior government affairs specialist, LaWanda Edwards, were sent to Del. Peter Hammen, of Baltimore City, the committee chairman, asking that HB-15 and HB-24 receive unfavorable reports.
Each bill "would have an adverse impact on our goals" to reduce heroin addiction and overdose deaths with expanded education and treatment programs as well as prevention efforts, Edwards wrote.
Szeliga said she was not aware of any opposition to either bill from the county administration until the Edwards letters showed up the day of the committee hearing.
Del. Rick Impallaria, the Harford delegation chairman, said a majority of eight delegates representing Harford had agreed to support both bills, making it likely they would pass under local courtesy.
Impallaria, a Republican as is the county executive, said Glassman, who was a state legislator for 16 years before becoming county executive, should have expressed his reservations to the sponsors before the bills were introduced or, at the very least, "told us before we [the delegation] voted on them."
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Szeliga said she has since spoken with Edwards about the proposed amendments to HB15.
"We are hopeful that [Glassman] will remove his opposition, because everyone's come to the table in agreement," she said.
Mumby said, however, that the county executive has not taken a position on any amendments being considered for either bill.
Meanwhile, HB-34, has all but died after it received an "unfavorable report" from the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 11, according to the General Assembly's website.
The tally of committee members' votes, posted online, shows 15 votes for an unfavorable report, four against and two excused absences.
Harford County Republican Dels. Susan McComas and Glen Glass, who are committee members, cast two of the votes against an unfavorable report.
"We have not taken a position on this statewide bill," Mumby said of HB-34.