More than 1,000 Kentuckians die each year from drug overdoses, more than 200 of them from heroin.
Heroin use has surged over the past few years, contributing to drug overdoses becoming a more common cause of death than car accidents in Kentucky. This is a serious public health crisis — one that must be fought on many fronts at once.
Last year, the Kentucky General Assembly did the right thing to address a significant gap in this fight by enabling the state’s 8,000 pharmacists to dispense naloxone, a powerful, fast-acting opioid-blocker that saves lives when administered to someone who has overdosed.
It’s nothing short of a miracle drug. It blocks heroin’s bond on the brain’s receptors and immediately snaps the user out of a potentially lethal situation. It has no side effects and cannot itself be abused. People who know someone who is using opioids, such as a spouse, parent or a roommate, should have naloxone readily available in case they discover an overdose in progress. It can absolutely save a life.
Last week, the Kentucky Pharmacists Association and WellCare of Kentucky partnered to make 1,000 nasal atomizers available at no charge to people seeking naloxone. This allows the drug to be administered like a nasal spray rather than as a shot. We believe this will make it easier, and less intimidating, for people with no medical background to administer it in an emergency situation.
As a psychiatrist with many years of experience treating addiction, I know the nightmares that keep family members and friends up at night when a loved one is struggling with drug use. Sadly, patients may be most at risk of an overdose after they are on the road to recovery; because if they quit and then relapse, their bodies are not able to process the same amount of the drug they had been accustomed to taking before trying to quit.
Making naloxone available does not mean it is OK to use heroin, and we are certainly not removing all the risks of addiction. But we are giving friends and families a tool they can use to help save their loved ones in emergency situations, buying people the time they need to fight their addiction.
WellCare and the pharmacists association are being proactive in helping people battle addiction. We believe in educating toward prevention, assisting and treating when needed, and being ready in cases of emergency. No one should die from an opioid drug overdose because naloxone was not available.
By allowing pharmacists to dispense naloxone without a prescription and by working to make the drug easier for lay people to administer, Kentucky is establishing itself as a national leader in helping our communities fight heroin. Naloxone, when administered promptly, can save lives. WellCare and the Kentucky Pharmacists Association are working together to make sure it does.
Dr. Paul Kensicki is WellCare of Kentucky’s behavorial health medical director.