Hundreds of New Mexicans die from opioid overdoses every year. A new law went into effect this summer that requires patients who are getting prescriptions for five days or more of opioids to be given the overdose-reversing medication naloxone as well.
You can get naloxone at most pharmacies in the state. At least that’s what Stacy Haponyuk found in one of her research projects. She’s a student at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine.
“I’d encountered a lot of patients in the hospital who either had a history of opioid use disorder or were trying to seek out treatment for opioid use, and I was interested in seeing how available naloxone was,” Haponyuk explained.
So she and a couple of her colleagues called every pharmacy in New Mexico.
“Some of the big questions we wanted to address is whether patients would have access to naloxone if a doctor prescribed it to them,” she said.
You don’t have to have a prescription to get naloxone, but the new law is supposed to make sure that people who are going to be using opioids for more than just a few days have it just in case.
On average 90 percent of pharmacies outside Albuquerque had naloxone available the same day. But in New Mexico’s biggest city, only 72 percent could say the same. That’s the worst rate in the state.
Haponyuk said availability could improve, especially given this new co-prescribing law.
“It kind of forces medical professionals and prescribers to have that discussion upfront with patients when they are prescribing opioid medication,” she said.
Amy Bachyrycz has high hopes for this law too. She’s a pharmacist and an assistant professor at UNM.
“I think it’s a great law to make naloxone a standard of care with a high-risk medication like opioids,” Bachyrycz said.
The New Mexico Department of Health said 29 percent more naloxone was distributed the first quarter of this year compared to the same time last year. The number of drug-related deaths went down a bit during that same time.
You don’t need to be using opioids to have naloxone around.
“We use the analogy ‘It’s like a fire extinguisher,’” Bachyrycz said. “Not maybe so much for yourself, but if other people get into your medication.”
She also said naloxone should be in everybody’s cabinet because you never know what could happen. Snehal Bhatt keeps it a little closer than that.
“I carry one in my car like right now,” Bhatt said.
He’s the medical director of the state’s Opioid Response Initiative.
“Anyone who might be in a position to help reverse an overdose should ideally carry naloxone,” he said.
Bhatt said there are layers to New Mexico’s opioid problem, including the way people who are dealing with addiction are so stigmatized. He got a preview of that firsthand while doing research similar to Hopynayk’s, but on a smaller scale. He went to different pharmacies posing as a patient trying to get naloxone.
“You had to step away to a second window, meet with a pharmacist specifically and they said, ‘We have to register your information,’” he said. “In my mind, I was thinking if I was a patient struggling with a highly stigmatized illness like opioid use disorder – in fact, I wound up leaving. I’m not giving all that information.”
Bhatt said this only happened at a few pharmacies, but he adds that it can still be discouraging.
“We can do all the prescribing we want, but if the patients can’t access it, it defeats the point,” he said.
He said he hopes the co-prescribing law can help break down barriers and make it easier for folks to get the help they need.
Support for KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and from KUNM listeners like you.