All Pennsylvania residents have an open prescription for naloxone, the overdose reversal medication, but a recent survey found that in the seven Philadelphia zip codes with the highest number of overdoses, pharmacists weren’t aware of the standing order and the majority didn’t carry the drug, Newsworks reports.
Pennsylvania Physical General Dr. Rachel Levine took the unusual step of issuing an open prescription in October 2015, in response to the worsening heroin epidemic in the state and nationwide. Because it’s unusual, pharmacists across the state aren’t always aware it exists: Levine told Newsworks that only about 56 percent of the pharmacies visited since the program started actually have the drug in stock.
A survey by University of Pennsylvania researchers and staff at Prevention Point, a public health nonprofit focused on addiction, found that just 11 of 89 Philadelphia pharmacies contacted had the drug in stock. Pharmacies in Kensington, the neighborhood with the highest number of overdoses, had the least awareness of the open prescription.
“Shockingly, most of the pharmacies and pharmacists have no idea about the standing order,” said Jose Benitez, director of Prevention Point. Elvis Rosado, another employee who trains people in administering nalaxone, said he often hears of barriers to procuring the drug from the people he works with — either due to misinformation or stigma.
“People have come in [to the pharmacy] and they’ve gotten everything from, ‘I can only get it if you have a prescription from a doctor,’ or ‘It has to be specifically for you. I can’t give you something if it’s going to be used on somebody else,’” he says. “A young lady I trained out in Tioga, the pharmacist said to her, ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t sell you the heroin, I’m not selling you the Narcan.”
For now, Rosado and Prevention Point maintain a list of pharmacies that do carry the drug, and the nonprofit is putting together education materials for pharmacies. The survey found that it can often take pharmacies one or two days to procure the drug — too long to save someone who is overdosing.
More than half of U.S. states now have a naloxone standing order, and cities are debating other ways to reduce the harm of heroin use in ways large and small. Seattle is considering the nation’s first “safe injection sites,” designated clinics where heroin users can legally use, in hopes of reducing overdoses and deaths and increasing addict’s access to rehab services. And Portland, Maine, took the small step of installing needle disposal boxes in parks, to at least stem the transmission of disease through discarded needles.
Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.