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Big Pharma Company Jacks Up Price of Overdose Life Saver by 1100%: Now, More People Will Die

Naloxone is key to fighting overdose deaths, but sky-high prices threaten community distribution programs.

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With a powerful monopoly maintaining a tight grip on naloxone prices, the situation might look grim for small community programs. In addition to price increases, naloxone supply has also suffered from quality control problems in the manufacturing system and  periodic shortages. However, there are practical solutions available if the government, the pharmaceutical industry and community advocates intervene.

One solution that could increase supply and reduce prices is for the Food and Drug Administration to allow  temporary importation of naloxone from foreign manufacturers. According to Open Society Foundation’s research on global naloxone supply, in many countries naloxone is produced for under $2 a dose. There is also precedent for the government to allow importation in times of crisis. However, some advocates are pessimistic.

Whitney Englander, government relations manager with the Harm Reduction Coalition in Washington D.C., is involved in national advocacy around naloxone access issues and has moderated phone calls between the FDA and the community. “There is a precedent for the U.S. to allow temporary importation of foreign medications in the case of shortages,” explains Englander, “but we [Americans] are fiercely protective of our pharmaceutical industry. On our calls [with the FDA] it doesn’t seem that they are even considering that possibility right now.”

Besides importation, the federal government can lower prices by enticing new pharmaceutical companies to enter the market through a  fast-track approval process. The FDA can also approve naloxone for  over-the-counter use so that people who need it can purchase directly from pharmacies, and the government can create a  stockpile of affordable naloxone for emergency use.

Hospira also has a responsibility to ensure access to naloxone. The company could arrange price deals with nonprofits, as it has with the Chicago Recovery Alliance, or even donate naloxone to community organizations that distribute it to needy populations. Based on numbers from a confidential industry source, Nabarun Dasgupta, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina, estimates it would cost a mere $100,000 for Hospira to supply every harm reduction program in the country with enough naloxone to meet current capacity.

“I call Hospira an irresponsible monopoly,” Dasgupta says. “Naloxone is a $20-million-a-year industry; they can afford compassionate pricing for nonprofits.”

Without direct action from Hospira or the government, it is up to community programs and the people directly affected by drug overdose to create solutions. Thanks to grassroots organizing, more than  12 states this year will introduce new legislation to expand access to naloxone. Many communities are pushing for “standing order models” whereby a medical provider can give permission to certain persons without prescribing authority, like nurses or even nonmedical personnel, to distribute naloxone without a doctor present.  Ten states have passed 911 Good Samaritan laws to encourage witnesses to an overdose to call for help without fear of criminal repercussions, and a dozen more are introducing bills this year thanks to the efforts of small nonprofits, including the  NC Harm Reduction Coalition and Project Lazarus of North Carolina.

Community naloxone distribution programs are essential to the fight against overdose deaths. Few public health initiatives can demonstrate such remarkable results as one life saved for every five interventions. And a  46% decline in overdose deaths in Massachusetts towns with naloxone programs translates into scores of people with another chance to contribute to this world. We can raise awareness about overdose all we want, but the real solution is to put the antidote into the hands of the people who need it most. And that solution is in danger if corporate greed continues to reign.

For information on the closest overdose prevention program, visit the  Overdose Prevention Alliance. Healthcare providers interested in prescribing naloxone rescue kits should check out  Prescribe To Prevent.