ST. PAUL, Minn. -- It's easier than ever for people at risk of an opiate overdose in Minnesota and their families to get the lifesaving antidote naloxone, and keep it on hand in the event of an emergency.
A growing number of pharmacies are taking advantage of a new law that allows them to dispense the drug, commonly sold under the brand names of Narcan and Evzio, without a prescription or doctors' orders.
"They can simply go to the pharmacy counter," Jennifer Bodmer of CVS told reporters who gathered at the Minn. Dept. of Health Friday.
"We believe this increased access gives more people a chance to survive, and give them time to get the recovery that they need."
CVS was the first to establish the new protocol in its stores in 41 states, including Minnesota. Now the Walgreens chain has followed suit, as well as many independent pharmacies.
"This is such an important issue that we are going to survey the pharmacies that we license in the state and ask them if they do participate so we can put an updated list on our website, that consumers can access," Cody Wiberg, the executive director of the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy explained.
Wiberg noted that people can still gain access to the drug by getting a prescription from a doctor, but the new system is meant to help those who may not have a physician or feel comfortable going that route.
Opioid overdoses from prescription drugs as well as controlled substances such as heroin have reached epidemic levels in Minnesota and many other places throughout the nation.
The Dept. of Health is attacking the opioid addiction issue on several of fronts, including longer term solutions to the addiction and over prescription problems. But policymakers also wanted to mount a focused campaign to make naloxone more accessible immediately.
Dr. Ed Ehlinger, the state health commissioner, compared the new system to people who have allergies carrying EpiPen injectors in the event of an anaphylactic reaction.
"The point is that we want this medication in the hands of people who are at risk, or have family members or loved ones who are at risk," Dr. Ehlinger remarked. "We know this is a lifesaving drug if it gets into people at the right time."
According the Bodmer the injectable liquid form of naloxone sells for $45, but contains two doses. The nasal inhalers sell for $110.
Dr. Ruth Lynfield, the state epidemiologist, said it's a good idea for those who take opiate based prescription drugs to have the antidote on hand because they're more likely to develop a problem, or build up a tolerance that leads them to take more than the recommended doses.
"If you do get naloxone because you’re worried about yourself, it’s really important to tells those around you that you have it, where it is, and encourage to learn how to use it," Dr. Lynfield told reporters.
The press conference also included a demonstration from Lexi Reed Holtum of the Steve Rummler Hope Foundation, showing how to use the antidotes. They're available in as a liquid injectable with a hypodermic needle, a nasal spray and a self-injecting device similar to an EpiPen.
"You don't really have to worry about getting an air bubble in the syringe because you're not injecting this into a vein, you're injecting this into a muscle -- in the shoulder, the glute or the thigh."
The Rummler foundation is named for Holtum's fiancée Steve Rummler who died in 2011 after years of battling addiction to prescription pain killers with opioids, a habit that began with a neck injury.
The Rummler foundation's kits also come with instructions. Holtum stressed those giving the drugs to revive an overdose victim should to call 9-1-1 first.
"People should know that Steve’s law provides limited immunity from prosecution for the drugs on scene and for paraphernalia, so you do not need to be fearful about calling for help," Holtum explained.
The new dispensing protocol in Minnesota also enables pharmacists to give instructions on how to administer to the drug, after calling 9-1-1. But training is also available through organizations such as the Steve Rummler Hope Foundation.
CVS has also worked on the drug control end of the problem, donating drug disposal kits to local police departments around the nation, so that people can drop off unused prescription opioids with no questions asked.
Bodmer said that CVS collected more than 1,200 pounds of unused medications in Minnesota last year.