Raleigh, N.C. — A Senate panel on Tuesday advanced a proposal that would make a fast-acting antidote to opioid overdose available to anyone who asks for it at a pharmacy.
The drug naloxone, also known as Narcan, would be dispensed anonymously, using a standing statewide prescription by the state health director.
It would be the first such standing prescription of its kind in state history. Only two other states have taken similar action. But state Health Director Dr. Randall Williams said he thinks more are likely to follow suit, as abuse of opioids such as heroin, fentanyl and oxycodone continues to skyrocket nationally and in North Carolina.
"The issue we're looking at today is probably, in many ways, the public health crisis of our time," Williams told the Senate Health Care committee. "One out of four of our [state] autopsies now is for drug overdose, and many of them are very young people."
In 2013, state lawmakers equipped first responders with naloxone. That program is estimated to have saved about 3,000 lives in the past three years. Last year, Williams said, first responders were able to save more overdose victims than they lost.
"We feel like this is an evolution of that," he said, adding "we could save 500 of the 1,000 people who died last year if this was available" to the public.
Under Senate Bill 734, an addict or family member or caretaker could go to any pharmacy and use a prescription under the name of Dr. Randall Williams, using his federal DEA number. They would then have the drug close at hand in case of an overdose.
Some politicians, most recently Maine Gov. Paul LePage, have opposed bills like this, arguing that increasing access to naloxone simply encourages opioid abuse.
But that concern was not voiced Tuesday by any senators on the committee. Instead, one after another spoke of the opioid addiction and overdoses they've encountered in their own communities – rich and poor, white and black.
"There's not a profile," said Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake. "It affects everybody."
"It’s analogous to a lifeguard at the beach," Williams agreed. "If somebody’s drowning, we don’t ask them how they got there. We just go out and save them and help them from there."
Asked about potential side-effects of naloxone, Williams said they are minimal and rare, the most serious being potential heart arrhythmia or swelling in someone with underlying heart problems. However, he added, if the overdose isn't counteracted, "we pretty much know that the outcome will be mortality."
The bill passed unanimously and will be heard next in Senate Judiciary 1.