Drug addicts, friends, and family members seeking to prevent an overdose will have greater access to life-saving opioid antidotes that should soon be available without a prescription at more pharmacies in New Jersey.
Gov. Chris Christie signed a law Friday that would allow pharmacies of all sizes to sell the antidote —naloxone, or Narcan — which is easy to administer as a shot or nasal spray that can quickly reverse a potentially deadly reaction to heroin or prescription drugs.
“Expanding access to Narcan will help save lives and allow those who are suffering from addiction a second chance to get the treatment they need to win their battle” with the disease, said Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex), who first introduced a proposal to expand drug store sales in November 2015.
Life and death
Vitale said access to the antidote was limited in the past, especially for civilians who were not first responders. “But the antidote can be administered safely and swiftly by others, including family members, and providing access to it at the pharmacy can mean the difference between life and death,” he said.
A growing number of chain drugstores, including CVS and Walgreens, announced plans last year to expand sales of the medicine to patients without specific orders from a doctor to hundreds of stores in the Garden State; the antidote is also available at some of those pharmacies in dozens of other states nationwide. Those corporations have physicians on staff who can write what is called a standing order, or blanket prescription, to cover multiple patients and all locations.
The new law makes clear that smaller, independent pharmacies can do the same, and directs a doctor in the ranks of the state Department of Health to step in and provide the standing order if the pharmacy does not have a physician to do so. It also states that the antidote should be available to any person seeking to help an addict, regardless of prescription, unless the individual appears incapacitated to the pharmacist and would be unable to administer the dose correctly.
“Ultimately, this means the possibility of more lives saved if a pharmacist doesn’t have to obtain an individual order from a physician each time,” said Assemblyman Daniel Benson (D-Mercer), another sponsor of the final law. The measure is based on a bill, (S-295), that — in addition to Vitale and Benson — was sponsored by Sen. Paul Sarlo, (D-Bergen), Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), and a number of their colleagues. It was approved in late May by lawmakers in both houses with unanimous support.
The law does not address insurance coverage for the drug or cost. Prices generally range between $90 and $135 for a two-dose package of Narcan, without coupons or other discounts, although reports earlier this year suggested the cost has spiked significantly in some areas.
Christie’s action on the law is his latest effort to expand access to the life-saving antidote, which has been used more than 22 thousand times in recent years, saving many thousands of lives, according to his office. In 2014, the state extended its Narcan program to train and equip first responders; it has also provided tens of thousands of overdose kits, which contain the antidote, to friends and family members of those with substance-use disorders.
Slowing the flow
With support from the state legislature, the governor has also sought to reduce the flow of addictive prescription drugs, expanding the state’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program just last week. Earlier this year he signed a law that created the nation’s strictest limits on the number of opiate doses available for first-time acute pain patients.
But even supporters of the expanded use of Narcan note that reversing an overdose alone won’t keep a substance abuser clean. To that end, Christie has also created a “recovery coach” program that matches addicts in detox with sober peers who can help keep them on track, expanded insurance coverage for inpatient and outpatient drug treatment. He also is seeking to create more options for drug-free housing once they get clean.
Heroin addiction alone has killed thousands of Garden State residents in recent years and sent tens of thousands in search of treatment annually. But space is limited, especially for those with limited insurance options, and experts believe many tens of thousands more struggle daily with substance-use issues.
“Naloxone has proven to be a lifesaver. And each life we save provides another chance to get that person into addiction treatment and hopefully put them on the road to recovery and a vastly different outcome,” Vainieri Huttle said.