How to stop overdoses? One lawmaker wants to perfect the ‘warm hand-off’

First responders in Pennsylvania have been reporting a recurring problem when reviving overdose victims. Often, they're helping the same people, over and over.

An ambulance pulls out of the emergency entrance at Temple University Hospital.

In this file photo, an ambulance pulls out of the emergency entrance at Temple University Hospital. (Brad Larrison for WHYY)

 First responders in Pennsylvania — and elsewhere — have been reporting a recurring problem when reviving overdose victims.

Often, they’re helping the same people, over and over.

A group of state lawmakers is trying to come up with a plan to help break that loop.

Doyle Heffley, a GOP Representative from Carbon County, is sponsoring two proposals. One would help clinics coordinate to find beds for people who need inpatient care.

The other is being called the “warm hand-off” measure.

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It’s modeled after a Lehigh County program that has recovery counselors follow up with people who have overdosed. Heffley envisions it involving a statewide network of centers where overdose victims can be evaluated and referred to treatment.

The “warm hand-off” would also involve emergency departments training first responders to make sure overdose victims are given the most effective interventions post-overdose, and working with state and county drug and alcohol administrators to stay updated on available services.

“One of the things that we’ve been working on is, how much is it going to cost?” Heffley said. “[The Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency] has a lot of grant programs out there for this. There’s federal grants. And hopefully, we can provide some additional state dollars and maybe leverage a little bit more.”

Heffley and his co-sponsors want Drug and Alcohol Department administrators in counties to include overdose survivors as a priority population for Federal Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant funding.

A panel of experts gives feedback to the House Human Services Committee during an exploratory hearing on two new bills. (Katie Meyer/WITF)

That may open the state to more federal dollars.

They’d also like to establish new grants of their own. Money from the Warm Hand-Off Initiative Grant Program would theoretically be disbursed in at least $25,000 increments and would be available to emergency departments and county Drug and Alcohol administrators.

Heffley noted that, as with the other anticipated costs involved in the warm hand-off program, there isn’t a designated funding source for the grants yet.

The bill promises DDAP will “aggressively pursue all Federal funding, matching funds and foundation funding.”

Heffley said he expects some existing funding may also be re-purposed to create necessary infrastructure.

The House Human Services Committee brought in several experts to testify on the proposals.

They were supportive overall. Though Deb Beck, with the Drug and Alcohol Service Providers Organization, noted there is an underlying problem the state eventually should address.

“We don’t have enough beds,” Beck said. “You can have a registry, but if you don’t have enough beds, what are you going to do?”

Beck suggested re-purposing the state’s mostly-unused inpatient mental health hospitals as centers for people recovering from drug addiction.

Heffley said that is one of the options his coalition is considering as the bills begin their long journey through the legislature.

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