CVS pharmacy on Wednesday expanded a program that allows people to buy the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone—also known as Narcan—without a prescription at its pharmacies in a total of 14 states, in an effort to help combat the heroin and prescription drug epidemic that claims more than 20,000 lives each year to accidental overdoses.
CVS has been selling Narcan without a prescription in only Rhode Island and Massachusetts, but is now expanding into 12 additional states that have passed legislation allowing pharmacies to sell the life-saving drug, which comes in the form of a nasal spray to be administered on a person in the midst of an overdose.
Residents of Arkansas, California, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah and Wisconsin can now purchase Narcan without a doctor’s prescription, which is of particular significance for these states as many of them have been hard hit by the recent spike in heroin abuse and deaths.
“Naloxone is a safe and effective antidote to opioid overdoses and by providing access to this medication in our pharmacies without a prescription in more states, we can help save lives,” Tom Davis, vice president of Pharmacy Professional Practices at CVS Health, said in a statement.
Approximately 24,000 people died from heroin and prescription opiate overdoses in 2013, accounting for well over half of all drug overdose deaths. While prescription opiates still account for more overdose deaths than heroin, the number of fatal heroin overdoses has surged over the past few years and continues to rise at a startling rate. Between 2002 and 2013, the rate of death by heroin overdose nearly quadrupled, with a massive 39 percent jump from 2012 to 2013.
“Heroin use has increased rapidly across nearly all demographic groups,” CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden said in July. “With that increase we are seeing a dramatic rise in deaths.”
While making anti-overdose drugs more readily available is an important step that will undoubtedly save lives, there is also an urgent need to expand access to substance abuse treatment. As USA Today reported earlier this year, “Many [overdose] deaths could be prevented if patients had better access to substance abuse therapy… Yet people battling addiction say that treatment often is unavailable or unaffordable.”
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, just 11 percent of the more than 23 million Americans who are addicted to alcohol or drugs get treatment, a percentage that has barely budged in more than 40 years.