Keep heroin overdose antidote affordable

The Frederick News-Post Editorial Board

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh has written a letter to Amphastar Pharmaceuticals, the makers of naloxone, asking that company to reduce the price of the drug for government agencies in the state. Naloxone has become an important tool in treating heroin overdoses and is used by many police departments and first responder units. That’s why Frosh is working to reduce the cost, which the manufacturer has marked up nearly 400 percent so far this year.

Frosh is looking for the same kind of deal that Amphastar cut with New York and Ohio earlier this year. Locally, naloxone is used by the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office and the Frederick Police Department, in addition to Maryland State Police. In each agency, many officers have been trained to use the heroin-overdose antidote, and it is available to nearly all of them while on duty.

Frosh has been joined in this effort by U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-7th, and many local and federal officials, all of whom are concerned about the steep rise in the cost of naloxone. This important drug must remain affordable in the midst of a heroin epidemic that has hit many parts of the nation — Maryland and Frederick County certainly included — hard in recent years. A Friday Baltimore Sun story reported, “State officials estimate that deaths from heroin and related drugs increased 95 percent from 2010 to 2013.” In 2014 alone, that death toll was a staggering 578 — 32 of them in Frederick County, according to data compiled by the sheriff’s office.

Price wasn’t always a big concern. According to the Sun story, the 10-dose cost of naloxone had been $97, but in recent months skyrocketed to $370. We don’t know why the price rose so suddenly and so dramatically, but it would seemingly mean huge sales figures for the company because the demand for the drug is currently so high.

Frosh didn’t pull any punches in his letter to Amphastar. “I understand the economic imperatives that enter into any pricing decision, but for any responsible corporate citizen, the health of Maryland communities and the lives of hundreds of patients must be paramount,” he wrote. In his statement on this issue, Cummings called for wider consideration from naloxone’s maker. “I call on Amphastar to act now to lower its prices in every state — not just in those that force extended negotiations with the company,” he said.

Naloxone has been used here in Frederick County in some instances, and nationwide the numbers are notable. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the drug reversed more than 10,000 overdoses between 1996 and 2010. Thirteen of those were in Frederick County, according to the health department. We wonder how many of those overdoses would have been fatal had the drug been unavailable because its price was prohibitive.

We applaud the efforts of Frosh, Cummings and others who are fighting the steep cost of this drug for government entities such as police agencies and fire and rescue units. We will let readers draw their own conclusions, but the sudden, nearly 400 percent rise in the price of this drug is suspicious, to say the least, because it has been around for several decades. What isn’t in question is that it is currently in great demand by government, and dramatically higher prices mean even greater profits for Amphastar.

Naloxone has proved a highly effective antidote to heroin overdoses. We encourage Amphastar to take its responsibilities as a good corporate citizen seriously and permanently lower the cost of this lifesaving drug.