Colorado Medicaid has taken a major step toward preventing overdose deaths from heroin and other opioids, announcing that it will now cover the overdose antidote nasal spray, Naloxone.
In drug treatment circles, increasing access to Naloxone is seen as a major harm reduction strategy, akin to distributing clean needles to prevent transmission of diseases like HIV. The Chicago Tribune recently reported
that Chicago is experiencing a tainted heroin crisis, but that many lives are being saved due to increased access to the lifesaving drug.
Chicago isn't the only place with a problem. In a press release, Colorado Medicaid notes that opioid overdose deaths have been increasing in Colorado.
"Each year, about 300 Coloradans die from opioid overdoses and another 17,000 people die nationally," it stated.
In 2013, The New York Times wrote a story
about the effort to increase access to Naloxone in New York City, and explained the way the drug works as follows:
Opioids function in the body by attaching to specific proteins, called opioid receptors. When opioids attach, the body relaxes and breathing slows. But too much of an opioid can cause respiration to slow to a lethal level.
Naloxone acts by competing with opioids for the receptor sites, essentially pushing the opioids out of the way and reversing the effects of the drugs.
The drug isn't brand new. In fact, it's been around for many years. But it's been slow to catch on in law enforcement and public health circles, in part due to controversy. The main point of contention seems to be concern that a drug that can stop a heroin overdose death will make heroin use more attractive. (The Huffington Post ran an article
about that argument a couple years ago.)
Some health care professionals may have also been hesitant to prescribe the drug due to fear of criminal or civil prosecution if there are negative outcomes with the drug. That problem was solved in Colorado during the last legislative session with the passage of Colorado Senate Bill 053, which granted immunity to licensed prescribers and dispensers of Naloxone.
The recent availability of Naloxone as a nasal mist, rather than a traditional injection, has likely also helped increase its popularity.
Colorado Medicaid notes that the state isn't expecting Naloxone to solve the drug problem. Gov. John Hickenlooper launched a new public awareness campaign earlier this year aimed at curbing prescription drug abuse called "Take Meds Seriously." (Anecdotally, it's common for heroin users to say that they became addicted to pain medications that were prescribed to them and moved on to heroin to feed their cravings.)
"This benefit supports the Governor's initiative to reduce opioid overdose deaths in Colorado," Susan E. Birch, MBA, BSN, RN, and executive director for the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing, stated in the Medicaid press release. "We are hoping to save lives and encourage other health plans to follow this lead."