A leading humanitarian organization known for providing medical aid to impoverished countries and disaster zones is now setting its sights on helping U.S. healthcare providers combat the opioid epidemic.
California-based charitable medicine program Direct Relief has partnered with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer to donate up to 1 million doses of the drug overdose-reversal drug naloxone to free health clinics, community health centers, public health departments and other not-for-profit providers nationwide.
Direct Relief began delivering the donated naloxone in March 2017 after a survey from the group revealed it was difficult for many providers to keep the drug in stock.
Healthcare facilities in 38 states received more than 36,000 doses of the drug. Communities with high rates of overdoses as well as those with naloxone education programs and training already in place were given top priority.
"America's nonprofit community health centers and clinics are on the front lines of the opioid overdose epidemic, as they are in every major public health issue," said Thomas Tighe, president and CEO of Direct Relief, in a written statement. "Direct Relief is deeply thankful for Pfizer's expansive commitment of naloxone, which will not only avert tragedy and save lives but also help the safety-net health centers lean into the critically important preventive and education measures at which they excel in their communities."
On behalf of Pfizer, Vice President of Corporate Responsibility Caroline Roan said in a written statement the effort was part of the company's overall commitment to expanding access to the lifesaving medication.
"Our support of Direct Relief's work to increase community education about the risks of opioid abuse and recently expanded Naloxone Access Program underscore our dedication to helping address the growing opioid overdose epidemic," Roan said.
There is no question that demand for naloxone, which was first approved 1971, has spiked as the U.S. faced a record number of opioid-related overdoses in recent years, with more than 33,000 in 2015 alone.
Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued opioid-prescribing guidelines for healthcare providers that recommended naloxone be included alongside any prescriptions written for opioid pain medication.
The annual number of naloxone prescriptions has increased from 2.8 million in 2009 to 3.2 million in 2015, according to a New England Journal of Medicine study published last December. Clinics and EMS provider prescriptions drove the increase, as their share of prescriptions jumped from 14% to 29% during the same period.
Yet Pfizer, along with other makers of naloxone, has come under criticism for increasing the price of the drug in recent years to such a degree that it has made it difficult for some public health departments to purchase and maintain adequate quantities.
Pfizer, whose subsidiary Hospira manufactures an injectable form of naloxone, was one of the five firms that make the drug that received letters last June from Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). The lawmakers asked those companies to explain price changes that saw the cost of the drug in some instances more than double over three to four years.
The cost of one dose of Hospira's 0.4 mg-per-milliliter injection of naloxone went from $62.29 in 2012 to $142.49 in 2016, a 129% increase. Other manufacturers, such as drug firm Kaleo, maker of the naloxone auto-injection product Evzio, had even steeper price increases. The cost of a two-pack of its injectors went from $690 in 2041 to $4,500 in 2016, according to the NEJM analysis.