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November 27, 2023

Messenger: A St. Louis man is pushing for Narcan on US flights. Will Congress agree?

Credit: STL Today

ST. LOUIS — This is how a bill becomes a law.

It starts with a tragedy. Or perhaps one that is averted. I wrote about such a case last year.

John Gaal and his wife, Mary, were on a Southwest Airlines flight headed out west, where he was scheduled to speak at a conference. Gaal is a retired union official who spent a fair amount of his professional life educating folks in the construction industry about the dangers of opioid abuse. He recently helped found a national program, The Alliance for Naloxone Safety in the Workplace, to make sure naloxone can be available at all construction sites. That’s the underlying drug in Narcan, a nose spray that when applied quickly and properly can reverse an opioid overdose and save a person’s life.

John and Mary, who live in St. Louis, carry Narcan with them.

A person on the flight collapsed. Gaal and other passengers carried the man to the back of the plane. Gaal recognized the symptoms of an opioid overdose. He gave the man Narcan. He came back to his senses.

Gaal told me this story not to get publicity for himself, but because he was upset. Southwest Airlines doesn’t carry Narcan on its flights. Many of the other major airlines do, following a recommendation of the Federal Aviation Administration issued in 2019. Gaal wants the FAA recommendation to become a requirement. And he’d like Southwest Airlines to follow the lead of American, United and Delta airlines, which all carry Narcan in their medical kits aboard flights.

So he wrote the CEO of Southwest Airlines, Bob Jordan. He wrote Missouri’s congressional delegation. He wrote me. I wrote about Gaal’s quest about a year ago.

Sam Cahnman read the column. He’s an attorney who lives in Springfield, Illinois. He agreed with Gaal that Congress should force the FAA to require that airlines carry Narcan in their medical kits. Early this year, he ran into U.S. Rep. Nikki Budzinski, a Democrat representing the 13th District of Illinois, which stretches from the Metro East to Champaign-Urbana.

Cahnman mentioned the column to Budzinski at a public event and asked her to look into it. He emailed her to encourage her to file a bill.

“The next passenger to suffer an opioid overdose on a flight will probably not be so lucky as to have a fellow passenger like Gaal on board,” Cahnman wrote. “That is why I am asking you to sponsor legislation to mandate that all commercial air flights have Narcan on board and that their staff be trained on recognizing opioid overdose symptoms and administering Narcan. I would empower the FAA to administer and enforce this mandate.”

In October, he followed up with Budzinski’s office to see whether she was going to file a bill. But, as it turned out, somebody else already had. In May, Rep. David Trone, a Maryland Democrat, filed H.R. 3616, a bill that would direct the FAA to require Narcan on all airline flights. “With opioid overdoses on the rise, airlines need to be prepared to handle a possible overdose on board. It’s just common sense,” Trone said in a news release announcing the legislation.

Trone’s nephew died of an opioid overdose in 2016, about a year before Gaal’s son died of suicide. Now both men, in their own way, are advocating for a new law that might save the next person’s son or nephew, mother or father, or total stranger, by making sure that Narcan is readily available when an overdose occurs.

Trone’s bill has been assigned to the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. In a House that has struggled to elect a speaker, there has been no action taken on it.

But the number of co-sponsors on the bill is growing.

In October, Budzinski added her name to the list.

There are now 18 co-sponsors, including three Republicans. Earlier this year, the House passed a five-year FAA re-authorization bill sponsored by Rep. Sam Graves, a Republican from northwest Missouri. It didn’t include Trone’s language, but instead has a passage that calls on the FAA administrator to “review and update” the medical kit regulations on flights, with specific attention paid to opioid overdoses.

The Senate is debating its own version of the FAA re-authorization bill. The “review and update” of medical kits on all airlines is not yet law. And even if it passes, the language as written doesn’t require the FAA to mandate Narcan on flights.

That means Gaal has more letters to write. In the past year, he’s written multiple letters to the CEO of Southwest Airlines, and letters to U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, a Republican from Town and Country, and Missouri’s two senators, Josh Hawley and Eric Schmitt, both Republicans. He’s written the FAA. He’s written the Secretary of Transportation. He’s received very little in the way of response.

Gaal is not about to give up.

“In light of this nation’s opioids crisis, what are we waiting for? Our citizens are dying at the rate of 190 per day due to drug overdoses,” Gaal wrote in one of his most recent letters to Hawley. “That young man I saved on 10/22/22 is a citizen in the state you represent. He is a taxpayer and remains alive today to pay taxes because of another fellow Missourian being prepared to save his life w/ Narcan.”

Trone’s bill is not yet a law. But an idea born from tragedy is gaining momentum. One man’s voice inspired another, and that voice led to a member of Congress adding their name to the cause.

More voices are needed. What are they waiting for?