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January 15. 2013 8:34PM

House committee hears testimony on bill seeking immunity for drug, alcohol 911 calls

CONCORD - Does New Hampshire want to fill its jails or save lives, a House committee was asked at a public hearing on a bill granting immunity for 911 emergency medical calls.

"Do we place more value on filling our jails or saving lives," said emergency medical technician and former representative Jennifer, Coffey, R-Andover. "Do we value treatment and prevention rather than jails?"

The Good Samaritan Law for 911 was endorsed by several supporters at a public hearing Tuesday before the House Judiciary Committee, but House Bill 118 also raised concerns among committee members and law enforcement that it would allow drug dealers or others who commit crimes to escape prosecution.

The bill would grant criminal and civil immunity to anyone making a 911 call to report a drug- or alcohol-related medical emergency. The subject of the call would also be granted legal immunity and that is what raised concerns.

"Does this (bill) protect the pushers and drug dealers?" asked Rep. Lenette Peterson, R-Merrimack.

The objective is to save lives, Coffey said, noting if it is a drug dealer, odds are the person will be caught eventually.

"We are in a real crisis and New Hampshire is not immune from that crisis," Coffey said, noting more people are killed in New Hampshire from overdoses than from car accidents.

"We have an issue with addiction we can't keep hiding in the closet," she said. "We need to do something about."

Eight states have similar laws to the one proposed for New Hampshire, with Florida the most recent to pass the legislation.

The first state to pass the legislation saw overdose deaths drop significantly, Coffey told the committee.

Supporters said the bill would allow people to pick up the phone and call 911 when there is a medical emergency like a drug or alcohol overdose without having to think about the repercussions or be prosecuted.

Today, they said, many will not call 911 during a medical emergency if they think they may be liable or might be prosecuted for underage drinking or drug possession.

As a result, people who have overdosed on drugs or alcohol are dumped beside the road or left at hospitals causing needless deaths, supporters said.

But committee members worried drug dealers or sponsors of underage drinking parties may escape prosecution.

Although no one testified in opposition to the bill, Elizabeth Sargent, who represents the New Hampshire Police Chiefs Association, said the organization is very concerned about the proposed legislation, although the members have not taken a formal position on it.

But supporters say the bill removes the risk of prosecution for both the person who reports the emergency and the person affected in order to save lives.

"I don't want to call my lawyer before I decide to call 911," said Rep. George Lambert, R-Litchfield, a bill supporter. "People have been dropped at the side of the road or left at a hospital."

Coffey asked the committee which would be the better phone call to receive as a parent, one from police saying your child has been treated for an overdose but is all right, or one that says your child didn't survive.

"I've seen both," Coffey said. "We need help."

The committee did not make an immediate recommendation on the bill sponsored by Rep. Joel Winters, D-Manchester.

grayno@unionleader.com


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