Pharmacists at one of the largest drugstore chains in Minnesota can now distribute an antidote over the counter that can reverse opiate overdoses.
CVS has announced that pharmacists at stores in Minnesota and 11 other states are now able to distribute the anti-overdose drug naloxone without a prescription. Another pharmacy based in southern Minnesota is exploring a similar program that's expected to launch before the end of the year.
"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," CVS Vice President Tom Davis said in a statement. "We can help save lives."
The number of people who die from opiate overdoses has skyrocketed in Minnesota and across the country in recent years. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that more than 37,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2013, most of which were caused by prescription pain pills or heroin.
Opiate overdoses can cause death by shutting down the victim's respiratory system. Naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan, can reverse the overdose and restore respiratory functions.
"Naloxone is completely safe," said Lexi Reed Holtum of the Steve Rummler Hope Foundation, which advocates for expanded access to naloxone. "There's no harm that can come from giving someone naloxone that didn't need it. There's no abuse potential."
Legislation known as Steve's Law was passed in Minnesota in 2014 to broaden the public's access to naloxone by allowing law enforcement officers to carry and administer it. It also allows doctors to issue a standing order so that public health groups or pharmacists can distribute naloxone without the need for a prescription for each patient.
Reed Holtum said it's sometimes been difficult to get the antidote into the hands of people most at risk of overdose, but that the CVS decision represents a big leap in providing access across the state.
"People can walk into the pharmacy, having not seen their doctor," Reed Holtum said. "Anyone who is in need of naloxone can go to their local CVS, go up to the pharmacist and let them know, 'I need naloxone,' and then the pharmacist will give you a brief training on how to use naloxone."
CVS operates about 60 pharmacies across Minnesota, according to the company's website. A survey of five CVS pharmacies in the Metro area on Thursday found that none had naloxone in stock. A spokesperson for the company said that the product can be ordered for overnight delivery if it isn't immediately in stock.
Another chain of pharmacies based in southern Minnesota and Iowa also plans to implement a similar program before the end of the year. Jessica Astrup Ehret, Sterling drugstores' community pharmacist, said rural residents can often have a tougher time getting their hands on naloxone.
"Rural areas often don't have access to large organizations," Astrup Ehret said. "I hope that some other pharmacies will jump on board in smaller areas, because we do have a large overdose problem."
The Sterling program will provide the naloxone for free to low-income patients in partnership with the Steve Rummler Hope Foundation.
"I believe that we can help people and they can find recovery, but they need access to the resources and they need a second chance," Astrup Ehret said. "If they do overdose, naloxone can be that second chance for them."