Politics & Government

State to pay for kits with life-saving drug for heroin overdose patients at three urban hospitals

FRANKFORT — The state will provide $105,000 for three urban hospitals, including the University of Kentucky's in Lexington, to buy about 2,000 naloxone kits to send home with heroin overdose patients, Gov. Steve Beshear said Tuesday.

Naloxone is a drug available as an injection or nasal mist that can quickly reverse the effects of a heroin overdose. But each kit costs $30 to $50 and isn't covered by Medicaid or most private insurers, making it difficult for heroin addicts and their families to keep one on hand for future overdoses, state officials said. Paramedics sometimes carry naloxone and administer it when they find an overdose victim, assuming they arrive in time.

"This project will allow us to get this medicine into the hands and homes of the people who need it most: heroin users and their families," Attorney General Jack Conway said at a Capitol news conference, standing with Beshear and first lady Jane Beshear. "They will be walking out (of the emergency room) with a medication that could save their lives."

The announcement came as the newly convened 2015 General Assembly was pressured to pass heroin-related legislation after failed attempts in the past two years.

During the first nine months of 2014, at least 723 Kentucky deaths were attributed to a drug overdose, with heroin involved in 27 percent of those cases, according to the state Office of Drug Control Policy.

The House and Senate have argued about proposed solutions, producing stalemates that frustrate the survivors of overdose victims.

"I think — at least, I hope — our legislators are starting to understand that this isn't a bad dream that we're going to wake up from. This is reality, and we need to do something," said Eric Specht of Fort Thomas, whose 30-year-old son, Nicholas, died from a 2013 heroin overdose.

Specht and several dozen others from Northern Kentucky held an anti-heroin rally at the Capitol to urge lawmakers to act. Speaking at the rally a few minutes earlier, Specht said: "When I discovered that our son's lethal dose of heroin was delivered to our home like a pizza — it was just so brazen, it still makes me fume."

A drug abuse task force led by Conway recently voted to spend $105,000 on naloxone kits from $32 million in legal settlements the state won a year ago from two pharmaceutical companies, GlaxoSmithKline and Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp.

As a pilot project estimated to last one year, the money will reimburse UK, the University of Louisville Hospital and the St. Elizabeth Healthcare hospitals of Northern Kentucky for their purchase of the naloxone kits. Collectively, those hospitals treat about two-thirds of the state's heroin overdose cases, Conway said Tuesday.

Fayette County saw the state's largest one-year jump in fatal heroin overdoses in 2013, up to 86 from 74 the previous year, according to the Office of Drug Control Policy.

Overdose patients, or a friend or relative accompanying them, will get a free kit with instructions on its use before the hospitals discharge them, Conway said.

Although the naloxone kits will save some lives, the legislature must act this winter by passing a heroin bill, Conway said.

The ideal legislation, Conway said, would lengthen prison terms for heroin traffickers; increase the number of treatment beds for addicts; get naloxone kits into the hands of all police, paramedics and other emergency workers and protect them from civil liability for administering it; and include "good Samaritan" language generally to protect people from drug-related charges if they call for help on an overdose.

Conway said the 2014 General Assembly began with a single heroin bill that enjoyed bipartisan support in the Senate and House — and yet managed to die in the session's final moments — whereas the current session has spawned 10 competing heroin bills so far. Some of the proposals are good, others could be fixed with work, and some "would create more problems than they would solve," Conway said.

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, told reporters Tuesday that he expects a Senate bill on heroin to be approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee before lawmakers adjourn Friday for a three-week break, to return Feb. 3. The committee is scheduled to meet Wednesday.

Among the broader Senate measures pre-filed last year was one by Chris McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill, that would toughen penalties for heroin-related crimes while increasing the funds available for addiction treatment, often at local jails.

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