As told to Chris Bavender
It seems almost every day the news is filled with stories of first responders using Naloxone – more commonly known as Narcan – to treat someone suspected of overdosing on an opioid. Narcan counteracts the life-threatening effects of opioid overdose. Originally developed for first responders, it’s now available over-the-counter (OTC) at a large number of Indiana pharmacies thanks to Aaron’s Law.
Signed in April 2015, Aaron’s Law allowed Indiana residents to get a prescription for Narcan if they believed someone they knew was at risk of an opioid overdose. The law was expanded in March 2016 to allow for OTC sales. One of the primary forces behind the law, Justin Phillips, was on-hand that day to watch then Gov. Mike Pence sign the law – a law named after her son, Aaron Sims, who died of a heroin overdose in October 2013. He was just 20 years old.
“We sent him to treatment and did all the things we thought we should do, but we just didn’t understand opioids at all,” Phillips said. “Aaron did well but then lost a friend in February of 2013 to an overdose. He indicated at that time how much that encouraged his recovery, but he started using again somewhere in August or September and overdosed and died in October.”
In 2014, Phillips founded Overdose Lifeline, a 501(c)(3) non-profit focused on impacting the opioid epidemic through education, harm reduction, prevention and support.
“Part of my mission is also to address the shame and stigma. Addiction is a chronic disease just like cancer, but we don’t treat loved ones with addiction with the same sense of urgency as cancer,” she said. “I had some guilt that I let shame and stigma stand in my way, so I don’t want that to happen to anyone else.”
So, Phillips started to raise money to provide Narcan to first responders and put Narcan kits together to give to families or friends of people battling opiate addiction. Then she turned her attention to her neighbor, Indiana Sen. Jim Merritt, to try to get a law put into place.
“I knew Sen. Merritt was very active in the Lifeline Law and cared very much about it and thought he would be supportive, but I couldn’t get through to him, and I was frustrated,” Phillips said. “So, I made it a mission of mine that when I saw him I was going to bring it up. One day he was walking his dogs, and I approached him [and] asked why he hadn’t responded to my messages and told him he needed to pay attention to this issue — that I needed his help with it. And, that was the beginning.”
Fast forward to that day in March 2016 when a stroke of the pen by Pence made Narcan available over-the-counter through a statewide standing order issued by the Indiana State Department of Health. In Muncie, a larger number of pharmacies, including the Indiana University Health Retail Pharmacy sites, have Naloxone available.
“We carry the Narcan kit, which has two nasal dispensers prefilled, has great usage instructions, including a good YouTube video, and is very easy to use if needed by a patient. It runs about $135 for the kit,” said Max Barnhart, RPh, Administrative Director, IU Health Retail Pharmacy Network. “There are also individual prefilled syringes that you can purchase with a nasal aspirator. Two syringes and the aspirator will run around $75 or so.”
But, to date, Barnhart said they have not had anyone come into the retail pharmacy at Indiana University Health Ball Memorial Hospital to purchase OTC Narcan.
While critics have said making Narcan available OTC encourages addicts to continue to use, Phillips said it’s actually the opposite.
“There is research behind that myth that says it’s not true. This is where it’s difficult to put it in words … part of opioid addiction is the miserable withdrawal. Typically when they’re that far into their addiction, they’re no longer experiencing any pleasure but just keeping withdrawal symptoms away,” she said. “They don’t want to use, but they also don’t want to go through withdrawal, so they’re stuck in a bad circle and ashamed. We judge them and fight with them about using. But when you introduce a change of language and let them know you’re aware they don’t want to use, but if they are, to please let you help keep them alive, then the whole dynamic shifts.”
If you are an Indiana resident, then you can call 1.844.NARCAN.8 (844.627.2268) to order Narcan Nasal Spray through the CVS.com Home Delivery Pharmacy. For more information on pharmacies in your area registered with the State of Indiana to dispense the drug without a prescription, visit the Indiana Department of Health website at optin.in.gov/.
For more information on Phillips’ organization, visit www.overdose-lifeline.org/.
This story originally appeared in Facing Addiction in East Central Indiana, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Dr. Adam Kuban and the Louis E. Ingelhart Scholars at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.