When people overdose on heroin or prescription painkillers, their heart beat slows and they stop breathing. That means snapping them out of the overdose quickly with a drug that blocks the opiate receptors in the brain can mean the difference between life and death.
Right now most Missourians have to wait for first responders to arrive with the antidote, known as Narcan or naloxone. Under state law the public doesn't have direct access to the drug. But there’s an exception to the rule for veterans: a prescription from the St. Louis Veterans Affairs Health Care System.
“We operate as our own federal facility, so we operate under the federal laws for prescribing practices,” said Robert Connell, a clinical pharmacy specialist at the Jefferson Barracks Division of the St. Louis VA.
In May 2014 the VA began an initiative to distribute naloxone to veterans nationwide.
“This is just one more resource out there. It doesn’t solve the addiction problem, but it is definitely a resource out there to help prevent the worst outcome of it, which is death,” said Connell, who is part of the team that teaches doctors and veterans how to administer the opiate antidote.
According to Connell, the St. Louis VA has put naloxone into the hands of about 300 veterans since it began distributing the drug in October 2014.
“I’ve met with quite a few veterans, and in talking to them they start to give stories about how they wish this program had been instilled years ago and then maybe their friend or brother or fiancé wouldn’t have passed away of an overdose, ”Connell said.
The VA recommends prescribing the antidote to any veteran who might be at risk of an overdose.
“We’re allowed to use our clinical discretion. That would easily include anyone who has a history of an opiate addiction, or really anyone who’s on chronic pain medications, Connell said. “Or maybe they don’t necessarily share why they just ask for a kit.”
Connell said the VA also counsels veterans how to avoid an overdose. “It’s an outreach to show people we care, and maybe get them into treatment programs,” he said.
Last year, an bill to provide the public direct access to naloxone died in the Missouri Senate. This year, a new bill is once again making its way through the Missouri House this legislative session.
Illinois gave the public access to naloxone last year when state legislators there passed the Heroin Crisis Act.
Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.