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In opioid epidemic, some cities strain to afford OD antidote

David McFadden, Associated Press | 4/12/2018, 6:44 a.m.
On a Baltimore street corner, public health workers hand out a life-saving overdose antidote to residents painfully familiar with the ...
Leah Hill, a behavioral health fellow with the Baltimore City Health Department, demonstrates how to administer Narcan nasal spray in the event of a possible opioid overdose. The overdose-reversal drug is a critical tool to easing America’s coast-to-coast opioid epidemic. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

BALTIMORE — On a Baltimore street corner, public health workers hand out a life-saving overdose antidote to residents painfully familiar with the ravages of America's opioid epidemic. But the training wraps up quickly; all the naloxone inhalers are claimed within 20 minutes.

"We could've easily handed out hundreds of doses today. But we only had 24 kits. That goes fast," said Kelleigh Eastman, a health department worker assisting the city's bluntly dubbed "Don't Die" anti-overdose campaign.

Cities like Baltimore are feeling the financial squeeze as they rely on naloxone to try and counteract rising overdose rates. Some hard-hit communities across the country are struggling to pay for dosages even at reduced prices.

With more overdoses driven by synthetic opioids like fentanyl and carfentanil — so potent it's used as an elephant tranquilizer — naloxone remains pricy enough that Baltimore's health department is rationing supplies, stretching a dwindling stockpile of inhalers. Last year, the city distributed more than 25,000 doses, up from about 19,000 in 2016.

"Every week, we count the doses we have left and make hard decisions about who will receive the medication and who will have to go without," said Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen, who issued the city's innovative blanket prescription for the drug in 2015.

Numerous states have since passed laws — including bypassing prescription requirements and establishing community training programs — aimed at expanding use of the medication that restores a person's breathing while temporarily blocking the brain's opioid receptors.

"It's a bit of a pressure-cooker environment for Baltimore but also places in many other states that have been on the front lines of the overdose crisis and where the toll keeps rising. The challenge, on a structural level, is that there's no clear sustainable funding source for naloxone," according to Daniel Raymond, policy director for the National Harm Reduction Coalition.

In Charleston, West Virginia, the health department reported Monday that it has only 159 doses remaining, most allocated for community classes in coming days. Kanawha-Charlestown Health Department spokesman John Law said they've requested more naloxone auto-injectors from the company that's donated to them in the past "but we have had no response."

Last week, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams issued the office's first national public health advisory in 13 years, calling on more Americans to start carrying naloxone and urging more federal funds be dedicated to increasing local antidote access.

"Costs should not and, in the near future, will not be a barrier to accessing naloxone for anyone in America," Adams pledged.

A two-dose carton of Narcan — a brand name for naloxone inhalers — has list prices of about $125. First responders and community organizations can purchase Narcan at discounts of $75 per two-dose carton, according to manufacturer Adapt Pharma. The Evzio auto-injector from Virginia-based drugmaker Kaleo currently has list prices of roughly $3,800 for a box with two doses, up from about $690 in 2014.

The surgeon general's advisory was welcome in Philadelphia, where health officials have debated internally whether "rationing" accurately describes their naloxone situation. The city has one of the highest opioid death rates of any large U.S. metropolis and distributed 25,000 doses from July through December last year.