Researchers to Lawmakers: Naloxone Distribution to Prevent Overdose Death is Cost-Effective

By Scott Burris

Phil Coffin and Sean Sullivan have published a cost-effectiveness study of interventions that equip heroin users and others to administer naloxone in the event of a witnessed opioid overdose.  Naloxone is the standard antidote, and can easily be administered by lay people with a minimum amount of training.  Family members and friends of opioid users can quickly get the drug into an overdosing user via injection or a nasal spray. In an accompanying editorial, top brass at NIDA and FDA sum up the news like this: the study

“represents a significant step in the evolution of the science in this area: a detailed analysis of the cost-effectiveness of overdose intervention with naloxone administration for heroin abusers. The authors suggest that lay naloxone administration is likely to be highly cost-effective in this setting, a robust finding that holds up under various assumptions. Future analyses that extend their findings to the setting of prescription opioids would be welcome.”

The editorial flags one of the major legal issues that gets in the way of wider naloxone distribution – its status as a prescription drug approved for use by injection. Changing this is a torturous regulatory process. In the short term, though, lawmakers can do a lot to get distribution going where it is needed.  As of July of 2012, eight states had passed laws to clearly authorize or otherwise reduce legal barriers to the prescription of naloxone to drug users and other potential good Samaritans. That leaves 42 states where programs may have trouble operating out of concerns related to prescribing a drug for a lay person to administer. LawAtlas covers the law and has examples of the legislative approaches these states have taken.

One more thing: evidence that naloxone distribution looks to be cost-effective ought to motivate lawmakers to consider these programs.  Many places don’t have them at all: a study published last year in MMWR reported, among other things, that “Nineteen (76.0%) of the 25 states with 2008 drug overdose death rates higher than the median and nine (69.2%) of the 13 states in the highest quartile did not have a community-based opioid overdose prevention program that distributed naloxone.”  In others, programs are operating but with little or no public funding to purchase naloxone, whose price has been rising precipitously (that’s another story about our creaking system for producing essential medicines).

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