Thirty-three Alaskans died from heroin overdoses last year, a dramatic increase from just five years ago, when only four people died. Another 54 Alaskans died of prescription pain-reliever overdoses in 2015. Some of those deaths may have been prevented through the use of an opioid antidote, which can rapidly reverse overdoses.
There is a legislative effort to make it easier for overdose victims to get the life-saving drug Naloxone.
Some doctors feel comfortable prescribing Naloxone. Others are wary of facing lawsuits related to drug overdoses.
That’s why state lawmakers are considering Senate Bill 23, which would provide civil immunity to doctors who prescribe Naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan.
Family members of overdose victims are urging legislators to act. Juneau resident Gary Miller’s daughter died last May from an overdose after taking heroin.
“I kept asking myself: what if I had done this, or what if I’d done that? Would she still be alive today? I finally had to stop doing that. I was driving myself insane doing that. But I can ask what would happen if this bill passes. There’ll be other parents who don’t have to go through what my wife and I went through. There’ll be other drug users who will get another chance at life.” said Miller.
The bill would also give immunity to pharmacists who provide the medication, and people trained to administer it to overdose victims. Bill sponsor Senator Johnny Ellis, a Democrat from Anchorage, is considering widening the immunity to cover more people who could help overdose victims.
Naloxone can be injected easily into a person’s muscles.The federal Food and Drug Administration also approved a nasal spray form in November.Naloxone is considered safe, which is one reason advocates for the bill want it to be widely available.
Christina Love is an advocate at Aiding Women in Abuse and Rape Emergencies, a shelter in Juneau.
“Expanded access to this life-saving drug would send a statement to the public: We are worth it, and every life matters,” she said. “I can’t remember there ever being a training to the opiates that I was given, that I was prescribed. The only side effect of this drug is life. I can’t help but think if this bill would have been passed last year how many precious lives would still be with us.” Love said.
The bill also allows doctors to prescribe what’s known as a standing order to a pharmacy. This will allow the person who’s been prescribed the drug, a family member, or friend to pick up a prescription. Dr. Jay Butler, the state’s chief medical officer, noted that in Rhode Island, pharmacies can dispense n aloxone prescriptions to anyone who needs them.
Representative Paul Seaton, a Homer Republican, encouraged Butler to do something similar in Alaska.
“The goal of everybody is to make sure that we have something safe and effective and available throughout the state, not just dependent on what,” Seaton said. ” … a local doctor and a local pharmacist would do.”
The Senate passed the bill 19 to 1 last April. The House Health and Social Services Committee recently held a hearing on the bill. Bill sponsor Ellis praised Seaton, the chairman of the committee, for focusing on a bill sponsored by a member of the other party.
“Representative Seaton, to his credit, and his committee realize that this isn’t about normal procedure, or partisan politics. It’s a life or death, literally, a life or death situation.” said Ellis.
Ellis is hopeful the House will pass the bill and Gov. Bill Walker will sign it before the legislative session ends.