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New laws aim to help Arizona curb overdose abuse, deaths

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As prescription pain relievers increasingly fuel addictions around the country, Arizona is moving to curb the sale of unnecessary prescription drugs and reduce the number of overdose-related deaths.

State officials pushed through two new laws during the recently ended legislative session. The laws take a two-fold approach: to prevent addiction and to mitigate deaths once it takes hold.

Under a law set to take effect next October, doctors will have to check a statewide database before prescribing addictive pain medications such as oxycodone, in most circumstances. A second law that goes into effect in August allows pharmacies to dispense an antidote that immediately reverses overdoses from opiate-based drugs.

“We are committed to ensuring that more substance abuse treatment options are available, and hope that those who are given a second chance at life because of this legislation will seek help in overcoming their addiction,” Gov. Doug Ducey said in a statement.

Arizona has the 12th highest rates of prescription drug abuse in the country with non-fatal opiate overdoses increasing by 100 percent in just five years between 2008 and 2013, according to an Arizona Criminal Justice Commission report from 2015.

Under one of the new laws, family members and friends will have easier access to a drug that can stop overdoses from opiates such as heroin and oxycodone. Pharmacists will be allowed to dispense the drug naloxone hydrochloride, known by the brand name Narcan, without a prescription.

The Arizona State Board of Pharmacy is working to develop standards for dispensing the drug that will include counseling on when and how to use it, said Kelly Fine, CEO of the Arizona Pharmacy Association.

Fine said the drug will likely cost $20 or less through insurance. Those without insurance may be eligible for reduced prices depending on patient assistance programs, she said. It is not clear however, whether insurance will cover the drug for a family member or friend buying it for someone else, Fine said.

The new law also gives immunity from liability to doctors and pharmacists who dispense the drug and to anyone who administers it in good faith to someone they believe has suffered an overdose.

Rep. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, designed the legislation to make it easier for loved ones of heroin or other opiate users to save their lives if they overdose.

“This next step is where we will be able to see even more lives saved because we are putting it in the hands of people who are in the best position to help,” she said. “At the time of an overdose, every second counts.”

A second law that Ducey backed requires doctors to check the state’s prescription monitoring database before prescribing drugs that contain opioids or benzodiazepine, a type of tranquilizer.

Doctors are already required to check a voluntary database, but this would make it mandatory, except in certain circumstances such as hospice care.

Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain hills, sponsored the legislation to stop drug abusers from gaming the system.

“It will reduce the number of drugs on the streets, associated car accidents, overdoses and personal and family misery that goes along with opiate use,” he said.

Kam Gandhi, executive director for the Arizona State Board of Pharmacy, said the program will also help doctors access more information to better manage their patients’ medical needs.

“It’s a scary amount of narcotics that are prescribed in this country and the state,” he said. “So hopefully we can curtail some of this addictive behavior.”

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