Legislature Unanimously Clears Bill to Fight Opiate Addiction Epidemic

House Bill 4124 makes Narcan, a drug that counteracts opiate overdoses, available at the pharmacy without a prescription. It also authorizes the Oregon Health Authority to spend $41,000 to hire an IT company to make the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program more accessible to emergency room doctors.

Easy access to life-saving drugs will be coming to a pharmacy near you, as the Senate followed the House on Monday to unanimously pass House Bill 4124, which allows pharmacists to dispense Narcan, which counteracts narcotic overdoses, without a prescription.

HB 4124 also authorizes $100,000 for the Oregon Health Authority to improve its Prescription Drug Monitoring Program so that emergency room physicians will be able to access the database directly through the widely used Emergency Department Information Exchange.

By simplifying access to the database, Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, said that she hoped more doctors would check it before prescribing addictive medications, and allow the monitoring program to work as intended -- to flag patients who may be doctor-shopping for narcotics.

“Opiate addiction and abuse is a serious problem in our state and nationwide,” Steiner Hayward said in her brief floor speech before the Senate passed the bill.

The money for the information technology will come from fees that the health authority already charges physicians and health centers that use the monitoring program, and those fees do not need to be raised to cover the costs of HB 4124.

The legislative fiscal office estimates that an outside information technology company could complete the work for $41,000; the remaining money, plus $154,000 for 2017-2019 biennium, will pay the wages of health authority staff administering the program.

People wishing to get a supply of Narcan, also known as Naloxone Hydrochloride, from their pharmacists will have to complete an online tutorial from the health authority. Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, told The Lund Report that the antidotal drug was non-toxic, non-addictive, and would have no effect on someone without opiates in their bloodstream.

Narcan is a nasal spray used for the emergency treatment of known or suspected opioid overdose, when the opiate user quits breathing or becomes incapacitated.

Buehler believes Narcan should be available over-the-counter, but that would take approval from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, while the state is free to allow the pharmacist to dispense it without a prescription from behind the counter, as Oregon already does with Sudafed and certain kinds of birth control.

Sen. Alan Bates, D-Ashland, said last week in a budget hearing where funding was approved that Narcan provides critical but temporary relief.

“It blocks it, it doesn’t get it out of the system,” Bates said. “It doesn’t prevent an emergency department visit. It prevents the need for a very expensive hospitalization.”

Bates said that when narcotic addicts are brought back from the brink by Narcan, the traumatic episode can serve as the rock-bottom wake-up call that leads them to quit. “It kind of starts them on the path of getting off narcotics,” he said.

The overuse of narcotic painkillers stems from the mid-1990s, when pharmaceutical representatives persuaded physicians to prescribe narcotics for more common kinds of pain, only to see many of their patients become addicted, according to earlier testimony from Buehler.

HB 4124 had been a top priority of the Oregon Medical Association for the 2016 session, and its passage will provide some concrete policy progress as opioid abuse prevention takes center-stage at the organization’s annual convention in April.