LIFE-SAVING CONTROVERSY

The opioid antagonist Narcan can now be purchased at drug stores with or without a prescription.

HARRISBURG – Gov. Tom Wolf on Thursday announced that the state is spending $5 million to provide 120,000 doses of an overdose-reversal drug to people across the state.

“Naloxone, a life-saving medication, is making a difference in the heroin and opioid epidemic in Pennsylvania and why I included funding for it in my 2017-18 budget,” Wolf said. “This program will create a fast, efficient means of getting these life-saving kits in the hands of first responders.”

Wolf said that the move will help the people “on the front line of the epidemic” save lives and begin the process that will move them from the emergency department through a “warm handoff” into treatment and onto recovery.

Under the plan, officials in each county will apply to the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency to get their share of naloxone doses, Charles Ramsey, chairman of the PCCD, said at a Thursday afternoon news conference at the Capitol.

“Hopefully, we get all 67 counties to apply,” he said.

The move comes as the state struggles against a heroin and opioid drug crisis that claims 13 lives a day in Pennsylvania, Ramsey said.

Police have saved 18 lives in Mercer County with naloxone, according to the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs. 

Officials in the Department of Health and the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs lauded the $5 million effort as a necessary first step in the state’s fight to provide treatment for people addicted to drugs.

“We can’t get help for people suffering from the disease of addiction if they are dead,” said Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s physician general.

Ramsey said the overdose antidotes will be divided across the state using a formula that considers population, drug overdoses and data obtained from the state’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program.

The state’s guidelines for distributing the overdose antidote use an intentionally broad definition of who a “first responder” might be, so that the overdose reversal drug can be put into the hands of as many people as possible, Ramsey said.

That includes librarians, bus drivers, people who work in homeless or domestic violence shelters, park rangers, college campus security guards, probation officers and prison guards, along with police and firefighters.

The state will leave it up to each county to determine who gets the overdose antidote, he said.

The state gave naloxone to Pennsylvania State Police troopers in 2015. The Department of Health estimates that about half of the state’s local police departments have provided the overdose antidote to their officers, Health Department spokeswoman April Hutcheson said.

The state doesn’t have an estimate for how many fire departments have given the overdose antidote to firefighters, she said.

Levine said law enforcement officers have already used naloxone to save lives 4,000 times in Pennsylvania. Roughly half of those incidents were in Allegheny County, Philadelphia and the suburbs around Philadelphia, Drug and Alcohol Programs data shows.

The new state spending on antidote doses will help replenish supplies in areas where first responders have been saving lives and hopefully get the naloxone into new areas where it’s not been available, Levine said.

Ramsey said that with the state’s new move, the overdose antidote could start arriving across the state as soon as Nov. 1.

Contact John Finnerty at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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