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Utah effort to reverse overdose deaths is saving lives

Dr. Jennifer Plumb, medical director for the Utah Naloxone program, poses for a portrait at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016.
Dr. Jennifer Plumb, medical director for the Utah Naloxone program, poses for a portrait at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Antidotes to help prevent death from opiate or heroin overdose have saved at least 166 Utahns so far this year.

The state's Opiate Overdose Response Act and accompanying pilot program — in which it doles out free naloxone kits to law enforcement agencies, local health departments, direct service agencies and more to reach high-risk individuals — is an "atypical medical strategy" but one that seems to be working, said Dr. Jennifer Plumb, a pediatrician and medical director for Utah Naloxone.

"Communities is where these saves are happening," Plumb said.

Utah Naloxone is hoping to impact the state's extremely high rate of drug overdose deaths — roughly 10 each week, she said.

Plumb, whose brother died of an overdose in 1995, said not all drug overdose reverse efforts are reported or counted, but law enforcement was beneficial in saving 23 people in the first six months of the pilot program.

"What's interesting about the involvement of law enforcement is that victims and families are starting to see law enforcement differently," she said, adding that kits have also been provided to concerned parents, individuals, community organizations and tribal entities that have access or know of people at risk of overdose.

The statewide awareness campaign, with billboards that contain photos of actual Utah victims, Plumb said, is helping "empower people to save lives." The ads direct people to visit UtahNaloxone.org for access to naloxone, which has been proved to reverse the effects of heroin or opioid drug overdose.

The Legislature has long been discussing ways to address the increasing number of drug overdose deaths in Utah.

Laws have been passed to impact the prescribing habits of physicians and dispensing practices of pharmacists, as well as to make improvements to the controlled substance database, where patients and doctors are noted for their behaviors pertaining to narcotic drug prescriptions.

Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, said there has been a significant increase in prescriptions over the years, leading to potential addiction. He presented a draft bill to the Health and Human Services Interim Committee on Wednesday that aims to limit the amount of pills for which a doctor can write a prescription for a patient receiving them for the first time.

Ward said research shows addiction can occur after 10 days of using a narcotic medication. His bill allows for first-time narcotic prescriptions written for no more than seven days.

"The first step is key," Ward said.

Doctors would be required to check the database to screen people they are putting potentially harmful drugs in front of. Following the first seven days, Ward said, a second visit would serve to assess the effects of the drug, and doctors could prescribe more of the drug if necessary.

"It sends a message to everyone — doctors, pharmacists and patients themselves — that these medicines are risky medicines," he said, adding that his intention is only to minimize the risk of addiction.

Ward said it is a "good habit" to get into, "not an imposition." And in the end, he said, it can save lives.