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Over-the-Counter Narcan Could Save More Lives. But Price and Stigma Are Obstacles

The Food and Drug Administration is expected this week to allow the overdose-reversal medication to be sold without a prescription, a step toward making it a common emergency tool.

If Narcan, the nasal spray that saves lives by reversing opioid overdoses, receives approval to be sold over the counter, public health officials hope the palm-size plunger could one day become as commonplace as a kitchen fire extinguisher.

But clinics and harm reduction groups, who have long pressed for the switch, worry that several factors may still impede widespread access to the medication — namely its price and the stigma that surrounds it.

Currently, a two-dose pack of prescription Narcan is often free to people covered by Medicaid or private insurance, or costs, at most, less than $10. But public and private insurance programs do not cover most over-the-counter medicines. Whether an exception will be made for Narcan could take months to resolve.

This month, a big-box pharmacy in Manhattan was charging $98 for the two-dose box of Narcan to customers without insurance. Another pharmacy chain in New Jersey charged $73.

Narcan’s manufacturer, Emergent BioSolutions, declined to disclose the price plans for an over-the-counter version, pending F.D.A. approval. The company said it would “work with public interest” groups, who are now charging about $47.50 a box. Health economists predict the new price could land somewhere between $35 and $65 — plus a retailer’s markup.

So the cost of the new out-of-pocket Narcan could make the spray prohibitive for many individuals, especially for those who inject opioids, and, indirectly, for the organizations that buy the medication in bulk.

And that, he said, may create another obstacle: “Then Narcan will probably be put behind the pharmacist’s counter or behind glass, which creates a barrier to the people who can afford it but don’t want to ask for it,” he said.

Often bystanders are themselves people who have become dependent on opioids. Clinics and many harm reduction groups, who distribute millions of naloxone doses a year for free, fear that their ability to keep doing so could be compromised by the growing focus on the Narcan brand.

Some health economists predict that Narcan prices will gradually decrease, as volume increases and competitors enter the over-the-counter market. Ironically, two of the likely competitors have ties to pharmaceutical companies that were targets of litigation for their role in the opioid epidemic.

That deeply embedded stigma, plus price, are why direct naloxone distribution by clinics and harm reduction groups nationwide is vital to the people who most often need the medication.

James Moore, who owns a family-friendly bicycle shop in Hattiesburg, Miss., is trying to combat bias as well as the price of Narcan, which, he said, in his area can run well over $100 for a double-dose box without insurance. At his shop, he gives out free Narcan and training to anyone who asks for it.

Mr. Moore said he was excited about the spray becoming available over the counter because he thought it could eventually help to ease the stigma toward people who struggle with addiction — people like his son Jeffrey, who died in 2015 from an overdose.

Addiction and overdose fatalities are often still hushed up in Hattiesburg, Mr. Moore said. So when he learns about someone local who has just died from an overdose, he lowers the American flag over his shop and flies a purple flag at half-mast for five days. He hosts annual candlelight services for friends and families of loved ones who struggle with addiction. He takes people enrolled in inpatient rehabilitation programs out for group bike rides, and donates refurbished bicycles to those needing transportation to and from drug court.

But Mr. Moore, who receives Narcan from state mental health services, also worries about the out-of-pocket price for Narcan if it is approved for open shelf sales.

“As much as I love Narcan’s existence,” he said, “it pains me to know what it costs an individual without insurance every time they go to buy it. So I’m anxious to see it go up on Walmart’s shelves, and for the competitors to come along. I want somebody to be able to buy Narcan for the price of a hamburger.”

Category: Science

Source: NYTimes Science

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