After actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a heroin overdose in February, we argued for making naloxone, the drug overdose antidote, more widely available. That’s beginning to happen in New York state, which is good news because heroin has become more widely available in recent years — and deadly. One needn’t condone drug taking to believe that if a life can be saved by the simple administration of a drug antidote in timely fashion, it should be.
According to the state Health Department, heroin overdoses more than doubled between 2008 and 2012, from 215 to 478. The growth is expected to continue, especially among teenagers. One reason is that it has become harder for them to get their hands on powerful prescription painkillers like hydrocodone since 2012, when the state started a new registry for health professionals and pharmacists that does a better job of monitoring and tracking these drugs.
Another reason is that Mexican cartels have flooded the Northeast with pure, cheap heroin — as in $7 to $10 a bag — the better to hook young people.
State moves slowly
The state has been slow to address this public health threat. It wasn’t until 2011 that the Legislature passed a Good Samaritan bill allowing a friend or family member to call 911 for help when someone has overdosed without fear of prosecution himself. And naloxone (which has a 95 percent success rate in reversing the effects of an overdose) has been mostly limited to ambulances and hospitals.
In April, though, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced a program that will ensure every state and local law enforcement agency has as many naloxone kits ($60 apiece) as it needs. The AG’s office will reimburse the agencies for their expenses with asset forfeitures from drug cases. Schneiderman announced the initial round of funding last week, with the Guilderland Police Department the first agency to be fully reimbursed.
Also last week the Legislature passed a bill that will make naloxone available to more people and organizations, as it should be. Current law allows doctors and nurse practitioners to write prescriptions only for specific people. The new legislation would allow them to write a general prescription to pharmacies and certified training programs, which could then provide the naloxone, along with training, to people at risk of overdosing or their caregivers.
This makes even more sense now that the Food and Drug Administration has just approved Evzio, a new, easy-to-use auto-injector for naloxone (similar to the EpiPen that has long been used to reverse allergic reactions.) Gov. Cuomo should sign the bill.
But saving lives after an overdose isn’t enough. To keep them saved, and turn them around, the state must make sure addicts can get the care and rehabilitation they need in drug treatment centers and the community.