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New Project Wants All Colorado Hospitals To Give Opioid Overdose Reversal Drug To At-Risk Patients

Narcan is a brand name for naloxone, a medication that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose.
Emergent Biosolutions
Narcan is a brand name for naloxone, a medication that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose.

Colorado hopes to decrease opioid overdose deaths with a new initiative, the Colorado Naloxone Project. The goal is to make Colorado the first state in which every hospital and emergency department is able to identify patients at risk of opioid overdose and then give them naloxone to take home. The medication reverses the effects of an overdose.

Naloxone saves lives, said Dr. Donald Stader, an emergency medicine and addiction medicine physician. Stader is the founder and chair of the project which, he said, is one of the most ambitious naloxone distribution and opioid crisis interventions in the country.

“The most powerful tool that we have to reverse the really gruesome overdose deaths we’ve seen across the state is by arming patients and their family members and communities with the overdose antidote naloxone,” he said.

The project will systematically train hospitals and staff, including nurses and doctors, how to recognize patients who would benefit from the medication. It also plans to help hospitals stock and distribute naloxone. Insurance providers are now required to reimburse hospitals for the medication after Gov. Jared Polis signed a state law last year.

“We want to create an entire system where this not only becomes easy to do, but becomes the standard of care across the state,” Stader said.

An estimated 1,457 Coloradan died of an overdose in 2020, a 36% increase from 2019, according to provisional data from the Colorado Department of Health and Environment. There was also a 140% increase in deaths due to fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.

Health officials say the stress and loneliness of the COVID-19 pandemic has led more people to abuse drugs and alcohol. As overdose deaths rise, it is important to increase life-saving measures, said Marc Condojani, director of adult treatment and recovery for the Colorado Office of Behavioral Health (OBH). OBH is a partner of and provides funding to the Colorado Naloxone Project.

“We’ve got to just double down and increase our effort,” he said. “(To) make sure people know how to find help and to make sure everyone who has a loved one that might be struggling with an opiate use disorder has naloxone in their hands and knows how to use it.”

In 2015, Colorado passed a law expanding access to naloxone. It created a standing order that allowed pharmacies and harm reduction organizations to provide the medication to those who need it. But very few people fill a naloxone prescription, according to a press release from the Colorado Naloxone Project. The project believes the solution to low fill rates is to give naloxone directly to patients at risk. This approach also reduces barriers like stigma that prevent people from getting the drug.

So far, 47 hospitals and emergency departments have joined the project and committed to dispensing naloxone.

The Colorado Naloxone Project sends a message to patients that health care providers care about them and their life is worth saving, said Stader, and evidence shows giving out the medication encourages them to enter recovery.

“When patients get naloxone, they get overdose education training. So, they know how to recognize an overdose when they’re in the community. They know how to respond to an overdose,” he said. “When they’re ready from recovery, they can come back to us and we can put them on lifesaving medication like buprenorphine (and) methadone.”

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