Police officers are just as likely to carry the overdose antidote naloxone as they are to carry a gun. They’re often some of the first people on the scene of an overdose and departments across the state say naloxone is helping them save lives.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse says the antidote saved more than 26,000 people in the U.S. between 1996 and 2014. But many Indiana police departments get their kits from non-profit organizations.
Some now worry funding for their programs will run out.
Monroe Co. Controversy Highlights Funding Need
When Monroe County Deputy Matthew Williamson gets into his squad car every day, he makes sure he has at least one dose of naloxone stashed in his driver’s side door.
“I always have it, because you never know,” Williamson says.
Today his patrol shift is relatively quiet. He responds to the sound of a homeowner’s security alarm and pulls a couple of people over for speeding through construction zones.
But, Monroe County Sheriff Brad Swain says his deputies are responding to more and more overdose calls.
“Oh, I think it’s a pandemic,” he says. “Not just in Monroe County, but everywhere.”
Swain says the opioid epidemic is consuming a lot of county resources. Earlier this week, he announced the department only had one dose of naloxone per officer. Swain faced backlash when he directed deputies not to use those kits when responding to emergency calls, but instead to reserve them for themselves.
“It’s a very real risk of exposure and I have to make a very real world decision on keeping my staff as safe as possible,” Swain says.
It’s a policy that only lasted a few hours before the county health department resupplied the department with 100 naloxone kits, but it highlights an issue for emergency responders across the state. Many of them received their initial supplies of naloxone for free.
“This was a program that came down from the state and we’re willing to participate,” Swain says. “If I go to the county and ask for money for this, then that money, local tax dollars, are being diverted from something else within county government. And that includes I have about 20 kevlar vests that are due to expire.”
Many Naloxone Programs Funded Through Short-term Grants
Monroe County is one of several police departments that participated in a two-year grant program started by former Attorney General Greg Zoeller. He used money from a $1.3 million settlement with a drug company to pay for naloxone training and distribution in counties across Indiana. He urged the state legislature to devise a more sustainable funding source, but that hasn’t happened.
The press secretary for current Attorney General Curtis Hill says in a statement “our office is committed to a comprehensive approach to fighting the current epidemic by focusing on enforcement, treatment and prevention.”
The Monroe County Health Department is worried about its ability to supply naloxone to the community without additional funding. It, too, used a grant to obtain 500 doses. That grant runs out in August and there are only 54 kits left.
“We are currently looking for other possible grants so we can replenish our supply so we can give it to the community,” says Health Educator Kathy Hewett.
“At this time, Overdose Lifeline doesn’t have the ability to serve the entire state without additional grant funding.”
Overdose Lifeline is another non-profit that delivers naloxone kits and training to police departments through a state grant program.
“And that grant will expire, we will run out of those funds,” says Founder Justin Phillips. “And, at this time, Overdose Lifeline doesn’t have the ability to serve the entire state without additional grant funding.”
Phillips says naloxone is a crucial tool in the fight against the opioid epidemic. She says several counties have already blown through their initial supply of the overdose antidote. In some cases, it takes multiple doses of naloxone to revive a person. Without more money, it’s unlikely the organization will be able to keep up with the demand.
“We know there’s federal funds available to states specifically for naloxone and we do know the state of Indiana is seeking those,” she says. “And, so we believe there will be that solution through those federal dollars. I’m just not sure at this time what the gap will be and when the gap will be filled.”
Phillips says one solution to the funding problem is to get more people on board with the cheaper version of naloxone, which must be injected with a needle. Police departments across the state use the nasal version of the overdose antidote, which costs more than three times as much. But Phillips understands why departments are hesitant to make the switch.
“If you’re using a needle, then you run the risk of a stick on yourself and we know we have a high instance of HIV,” she says.
It means state and local governments may have to take a hard look at their budgets and decide how much the naloxone kits are worth to Indiana communities.
Phillips says, to her, it’s a no-brainer.
“For us to turn away or choose not to save people who suffer from addiction, which is a chronic brain disease, is hard for me to grasp because we don’t do that for other people suffering from chronic diseases,” she says.