HARRISBURG – If cops can’t afford a life-saving antidote to drug overdoses, who should pony up to get it on the street? Drug companies? Pharmacies?

Both could be on the hook as policymakers search for ways to get naloxone to those who first arrive at the scenes of drug overdoses.

Few police departments in Pennsylvania have supplies of the drug used to reverse the potentially deadly effects of drug overdoses, according to a new study by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania.

The state has legalized the use of naloxone – more commonly known by its brand name, Narcan – by police and other first-responders. A new law allows relatives of drug addicts to acquire the antidote, as well.

But Pennsylvania police aren’t alone. Cops all over America are scrambling for the drug, creating a spike in demand and causing prices to more the double.

In Massachusetts, the attorney general has announced an investigation to see if drug-makers are price gouging. That state also has announced plans to buy naloxone in bulk to sell at a cheaper price to local police.

State Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-Bucks County, has a different idea to deal with the problem in Pennsylvania.

DiGirolamo, chairman of the House Human Services Committee, is circulating a memo asking lawmakers to support an impact fee to cover the cost of naloxone for police and first-responders. It would come from a 10 percent wholesale tax on opioid sales between the manufacturer and pharmacies. Legislation has not been formally introduced.

An impact fee makes sense because of the nexus between prescription drug abuse, a spike in heroin addiction and drug overdoses, said Deb Beck, president of the Drug and Alcohol Service Providers of Pennsylvania. People hooked on prescription drugs turn to heroin when they can’t get enough pills to feed their addictions.

Impact fee or not, Beck said she thinks drug companies have a responsibility to help.

“Wouldn’t you think the drug companies that are making money off the prescription drugs should pay for the cost of the antidote?” she said. “I think they should do it.”

Eight in 10 police departments have been called to at least one overdose in the last year, according to a survey of more than 500 chiefs by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania. An almost identical percentage of chiefs say their departments don’t have naloxone.

On average, local police respond to just over one overdose a month. In most cases, officers are the first of the first-responders to arrive, the survey found.

Pennsylvania, like other states, is confronting an overdose crisis stemming from an epidemic of heroin and prescription drug abuse. Last year 2,489 Pennsylvanians died from overdoses – a 20 percent increase from the previous year.

The State Coroners Association reported overdose deaths in 54 of 67 counties last year. Even smaller, rural counties like Mercer and Butler reported overdose deaths in the double digits.

State police are fighting the drug scourge, too, according to data they released Tuesday.

In April, May and June, troopers seized almost 81 pounds of heroin. That’s 50 percent more than the same period last year, when they intercepted 54 pounds.

State police are carrying naloxone. And, on June 12, troopers in Uniontown became the first officers from the state police to use it to save a life.

Stories like that are bound to encourage DiGirolamo and others trying to spread supplies of naloxone – no matter who ends up paying for it.

JOHN FINNERTY covers the Pennsylvania Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com

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