Cantwell Calls for Better Access to Overdose Reversal Medication

On Wednesday Sen. Maria Cantwell D-Washington and 15 of her colleagues sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to increase access to the life-saving opioid reversal medication, naloxone, commonly known as Narcan.

Last week U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome M. Adams issued a national advisory to urge citizens to carry naloxone, a medication easily administered through a nasal spray that is highly effective in reversing overdoses and preventing death while waiting for first responders to arrive.

The price of Narcan without insurance will run $150 at the Safeway pharmacy in Yelm and the copay will depend on the health insurance. Hand-held auto-injectors can cost more than $4,000, according to the letter sent by the senators.

“Such high prices are already leaving local fire, police, and health departments struggling to afford naloxone, and many Americans will want to follow the Surgeon General’s advisory only to realize they are unable to afford the drug that could save their own life or the life of someone they know,” the senators wrote in the letter.

Most pharmacies in Washington carry the reversal medication but protocol varies widely between them. Safeway, Albertsons, Walgreens and CVS pharmacies can directly prescribe naloxone through a collaborative drug therapy agreement, an arrangement allowing customers to obtain the life-saving medicine without a prescription from their doctor.

The medication is fully covered under Apple Health although customers using insurance must state the naloxone is for them, otherwise they will have to pay the full cost of the treatment. Most people seeking naloxone carry Apple Health according to Tacoma Needle Exchange community outreach coordinator Madeline Meisburger.

The Senators urged Health and Human Services to negotiate a lower price for naloxone products and ensure affordable coverage for people insured by Medicare, Medicaid, and individual and employer sponsored plans.

“No police officer, no firefighter, no public health provider, and no person should be unable to save a life because of the high price,” the senator’s wrote. “By bringing down the cost, we can get this life-saving drug in the hands of more people as called for by the Surgeon General. Doing so will save countless lives.”

Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death for Americans under 50. Across the state, 960 overdoses were reported to have been reversed through naloxone in 2016 although the Department of Health estimates the actual number is much higher than those reported. 

“Unfortunately, despite being approved by the FDA more than 45 years ago, the price of naloxone has increased dramatically during the epidemic,” the senators wrote. “The prices of the two user-friendly devices that can be administered outside of a health care setting are the highest.”

Paramedics and members of the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office are the only public safety personnel authorized to carry naloxone in Thurston County. Officers of the Yelm Police Department and all basic life support in Thurston County do not carry naloxone due to their service of care system. 

Thurston County Medical Program Director Larry Fontanilla believes it is more productive for emergency medical technicians to use a bag-valve mask instead of risking refusal of care upon consciousness, vomiting or agitation caused by Narcan.

Although Fontanilla believes the care system provided in Thurston County aligns better without basic life support personnel administering naloxone, he said it makes sense for those not trained in emergency medicine including law enforcement and citizens to carry the medicine.

Yelm Mayor JW Foster said he is supportive of Yelm Police Officers carrying naloxone in an interview with the Nisqually Valley News last week. He plans to talk with Yelm Police Chief Todd Stancil to discuss getting every officer to carry the drug.