Obama Eases Naloxone Access to Cut Heroin Overdose Deaths

  • Changes to drug policies to be announced in West Virginia
  • About 24,000 killed annnually in the U.S. by opioids or heroin

With the death toll from drug overdoses spiking in the U.S., the federal government will make it easier for addicts to get compounds that can counteract the effects of abuse of heroin and prescription painkillers.

President Barack Obama traveled on Wednesday to West Virginia, the state with the nation’s highest death rate from drug overdoses, where he outlined a plan to provide more training and education about the impact of heroin and prescription drug abuse. The proposal may benefit companies including Amphastar Pharmaceuticals Inc., a maker of naloxone, which is used to reverse the effects of opioids.

Obama met with West Virginians at the East End Family Resource Center in Charleston to discuss the policy changes. The state has been plagued by a jump in heroin overdoses since 2011, paralleling the rise nationwide, as well as deaths from abuse of prescription drugs.

An Epidemic

"It’s an epidemic in southern West Virginia,” Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who traveled with Obama on Air Force One, told reporters Wednesday. “The increase is unbelievable; heroin is coming in now. When you talk to the addicts and what they’re going through, and they just don’t have adequate treatment centers.”

The government will provide new training to health-care providers who prescribe narcotics and direct federal agencies to make naloxone more readily available to people covered by their health plans, Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, told reporters Wednesday on a conference call.

“More Americans now die every year from drug overdoses than they do in motor vehicle crashes,” Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, told reporters on the call. “This is a problem in cities and towns large and small all across the country.”

Obama said he was “stunned” when he started studying opioid deaths.

“The majority of those overdoses involve legal prescription drugs,” he said in Charleston, as he called for treatment and a crackdown on drug traffickers.

Overdoses on painkillers such as OxyContin or Opana killed about 16,000 Americans in 2013, and another 8,000 died after overdosing on heroin, a five-fold increase from 2001. Naloxone works by blocking opioid receptors in the cells of the human body, preventing them from responding to the drug.

The only U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved naloxone available now is an injection made by a handful of pharmaceutical companies. Police departments and addiction-treatment groups retrofit Amphastar’s injectable naloxone with an atomizer to create a nasal spray easy enough for people who aren’t trained medics to use. Amphastar’s product comes in a concentration that permits nasal use.

Amphastar is developing a ready-made naloxone nasal spray and expects to file for approval of the product this year, Jason Shandell, the company’s president, said on an August earnings call. In addition, Indivior Plc and Adapt Pharma are seeking approval for naloxone nasal sprays that may come as early as this year.

Competition Dwindling

The companies haven’t released pricing for the sprays. A dose of injectable naloxone costs about $30 -- up about 1,000 percent from 15 years ago as competition dwindled from as many as a dozen companies making the shot to just four.

States, particularly along the East Coast and in Appalachia where the opioid epidemic is the worst, have poured money into programs to increase the availability of naloxone. They’re also seeking to cut the price; New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman won a $6 rebate earlier this year for each Amphastar naloxone injection.

Obama in August announced that the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy would spend $13.4 million on a program targeting “high-intensity drug trafficking areas,” especially in New England and Appalachia, the northeast corridor between New York and Washington, and on the southern U.S. border. The plan is intended to provide money for police to better plot drug trafficking routes and for public-health agencies and paramedics to stem overdose deaths.

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