A naloxone pilot project at Fred Meyer pharmacies down south could be expanding to Alaska. Eight stores in Washington have quietly rolled out access to a drug that stops opiate overdoses. The chain plans to eventually expand to all its locations. In Alaska, this largely depends on the outcome of Senate Bill 23.
Taelyn Coffee started using opiates about seven years ago. She says it started with OxyContin, after seeing her boyfriend and a family member become addicted to the drug. Then she switched to heroin when oxys became harder to find.
One night, she was hanging out with her friends in Juneau.
“We were laughing. We were high of course,” Coffee said.
She remembers one those friends had just finished shooting up and the girl’s lips turned blue. Coffee says they all panicked.
“Trying to shake her trying to get some kind of notion that she was still breathing or alive at this point. Nothing. We got nothing,” Coffee said.
She says they were afraid of being arrested if they took the girl to the hospital. Still, they knew they had to get their friend help. She was overdosing.
With the changes happening in Alaska that night could have gone differently. For starters, the good Samaritan law passed last year, could have protected Coffee and her friends when they called for help. And now, Fred Meyer pharmacies want to make it possible for people to have access to a drug that stops the overdose.
“We see naloxone as a fire extinguisher. We hope you never have to use it but it’s great to have just in case,” said Melissa Hansen, a pharmacy sales manager at Fred Meyer.
The Fred Meyer naloxone pilot project rolled out in October at some Washington stores, but it’s still getting off the ground. Other pharmacies that carry naloxone in Washington include Bartell Drugs, QFC and several independents. Hansen said people wanting to get their hands on the drug don’t have to go to a doctor.
“So they can just walk into any of our pharmacies and say, you know, I’d like to get some naloxone. Even if we know that they’re not the end user,” Hansen said.
Fred Meyer can’t prescribe naloxone sometimes called Narcan under its own pharmacy license. So they rely on something called a collaborative drug therapy agreement.
For people who need it, Hansen says this reduces some of the barriers to getting the drug. After a short consultation with a pharmacist, the person is given an injection kit or nasal spray. Medicaid and some insurance providers cover the expense in Washington. The out-of-pocket cost for the nasal spray is only $40.
Hansen thinks naloxone isn’t just for heroin users.
“The other thing we’re really working on is convincing the medical community that they’re not having risky prescribing habits but that these are risky medications,” Hansen said.
For example, cancer patients sometimes take high doses of opiates for pain. Hansen says it makes sense for them to also have naloxone and someone to administer it nearby.
Fred Meyer Pharmacies plan to start advertising the program at their Washington stores soon. The program expands to Idaho in February and eventually it could come Alaska. Whether Alaska Fred Meyers pharmacies will carry naloxone depends on if the state passes SB 23.
“As soon as this law passes in Alaska, they’re already on our radar to go up there,” Hansen said.
The law gives protections for people administering naloxone.
That night that Taelyn Coffee’s friend OD’d, the group got lucky. They were driving the girl to the hospital and performing CPR.
“Halfway through the trip we were just getting past the intersection from McDonalds and she came to,” Coffee said. “That first breath, I can’t even tell you how that made me feel, and everyone else was just so relieved.”
That was five years ago. Since then, Coffee has kicked her opiate addiction. She now works in an organization that helps women in domestic violence situations. She says naloxone isn’t going to stop heroin use in Juneau but it could save lives. She wouldn’t hesitate to have some on hand.
“I’ll be the first in line to buy some,” Coffee said. “I’m not an addict anymore but I know tons of people who are still.”
Fred Meyer representatives say the program could expand to their 11 pharmacies in Alaska by summer.