Senators Seek to Reduce Drug Deaths With Overdose Prevention Act

Bill aims to save lives by expanding access to overdose antidote and improving prevention programs and first responder training

[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – In an effort to prevent drug tragedies and combat a nationwide surge of lethal drug overdoses, U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and 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. 


“Opioid use – including both prescription drug and heroin abuse – is an epidemic that has struck too many Illinois communities,” Senator Durbin said.  “This bill will help address the rising death toll by supporting federal, state, and local efforts to prevent and respond to drug overdoses.  I look forward to working with Senator Reed and our colleagues on developing a national response to this tragic trend.”


“Heroin is taking a heavy toll on our communities and Congress must act to prevent more individuals from falling victim to opioid abuse.  A lot of cities and towns may not want to admit it, but this is a growing public health and safety problem that cuts across social and economic boundaries and we need to take action or it will continue to get worse.  We need to effectively get life-saving medication to those who need it,” said Senator Reed, who noted that the Rhode Island Department of Health reported that there were 239 overdose deaths across the state in 2014 – an increase of 73% since 2009.  “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.


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.  


“Since I first introduced this bill in 2009, nearly 140,000 Americans have died from opioid related deaths, including more than 4,000 from my home state of Maryland,” said Congresswoman Donna F. Edwards (D-MD), who is introducing identical legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives.  “While I remain encouraged by the Obama Administration’s priority in expanding naloxone access across our nation, it is Congress’s role to appropriate funding.  I thank Senator Reed for leading this effort on the Senate side, showing lawmakers that we have a responsibility to fund programs that make a real difference in treating and preventing overdose, and ultimately saving lives.  And while I understand that there is much work to be done in order to address substance abuse before it gets to the point of overdose, each year hundreds of Maryland families and tens of thousands of American families need immediate assistance,” said Edwards.

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