Landmark Steven Kovacs bill tackles drug overdoses

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New York would become the first state in the nation to enact into law a requirement that someone with knowledge of a person overdosing on drugs report it to authorities or be held legally responsible, under legislation being considered in Albany.

The landmark bill is being championed by Joni Kovacs, 46, of Jericho, whose son Steven, 22, overdosed on prescription pills in Carmel in July 2009. Steven Kovacs, a Jericho native, was with several people who watched him gasp for air over the course of five hours without notifying authorities, his mother said.

Known as the Steven Kovacs Law, the legislation was drafted by state Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola) and passed the State Senate's Judiciary Committee Tuesday. The full Senate is expected to vote on the bill next week, with the Assembly expected to take up the legislation, which would hold parties responsible under civil law, before the current session ends June 20.

"Steven's Law needs to pass because it will keep people alive," said Joni Kovacs, who with her family has spent years pressing lawmakers for action. "While it cannot bring back my son to me, it will, in fact, save many children in New York State and save countless parents from enduring the grief and pain I suffer every day."

Martins said he was moved to write the bill after learning how Steven Kovacs died. The Jericho native had majored in psychology at Binghamton University and graduated with honors before enrolling in a doctorate program. Along the way he became addicted to Adderall, used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and Xanax, used to treat anxiety, as study aids while at Binghamton University, his mother said.

Four adults in the home where Kovacs overdosed took no action for five hours while he lay dying, his mother said. Martins' bill, in explaining the justification for its passage, says that "a young man . . . was left to die in a private residence following a social gathering."

Good Samaritan laws providing immunity from prosecution on criminal charges in such cases have passed in New York and several other states. These laws generally bar prosecution for a person's possession of drugs, drug paraphernalia or underage drinking if they call authorities to save an overdosing person. The Kovacs law is believed to be the first that ensures civil liability for people who fail to report medical emergencies occurring in their residence, Martins said.

"I wish we didn't need to pass a law for people to use common decency, but unfortunately people need to be reminded," Martins said.

Drug overdoses are the No. 1 cause of accidental death in New York, exceeding traffic fatalities, statistics show. National studies have shown that in as many as half of all overdose cases, no one with the dying person calls for help.

Addiction experts on Long Island said they support the bill and will work for its passage.

"If it encourages folks to pick up the phone and make the call that prevents a death, by all means we should have the law in place," said Jeffrey Reynolds, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. "This goes a step further than the current laws and conveys the liability in very clear terms."

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