Nova Scotia

Why pharmacies are charging so much for anti-overdose drug naloxone

Allison Bodnar, the CEO of the Pharmacy Association of Nova Scotia, said there are two major reasons why naloxone through a pharmacy costs up to 10 times the price of kits put together by the province.

Mandatory training adds $40 to $50 to cost of naloxone kits, according to Pharmacy Association of Nova Scotia

Naloxone counteracts the effects of a number of opioid drugs, including fentanyl. (Grand River Hospital)

Pharmacists in Nova Scotia say they are unable to sell life-saving naloxone kits at a price most illicit opioid users can afford, even as the province moves to expand the availability of the anti-overdose drug.

Allison Bodnar, the CEO of the Pharmacy Association of Nova Scotia, said there two major reasons why naloxone through a pharmacy costs up to 10 times the price of kits put together by the province.

Pharmacies must sell a more expensive over-the-counter version of the drug, she said, and pharmacists charge for the time it takes to train the person how to use it. Training can take up to an hour, she said, adding $40 or $50 to the cost.

"Everybody has to be confident that this product be administered properly so it will have the intended effect," Bodnar told CBC Nova Scotia's Information Morning

Spiking overdose rates

Last week, Nova Scotia's chief public health officer said the province needed to look at why it is so expensive to buy naloxone at pharmacies. For instance, several pharmacies in Cape Breton began selling naloxone kits this summer for $70, with refills costing $40.

Naloxone, also known by the trade name Narcan, reverses the effects of an overdose from an opioid, such as fentanyl — restoring normal breathing and consciousness within three to five minutes of an injection. Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more toxic than morphine, and overdose rates have spiked.

The Nova Scotia government has put naloxone in the hands of many first responders, and has made it available at needle exchanges and methadone clinics under a one-year pilot project launched early in 2016.

$7 to $10 apiece

The province is able to put together take-home naloxone kits for just $7 to $10 apiece. They include two vials of the drug and syringes for injection.

But one of the reasons it's far more expensive at pharmacies, according to Bodnar, is pharmacists are not allowed to resell the cheaper Schedule 1 prescription version prepared by the province. Instead, pharmacies must sell the more expensive Schedule 2 over-the-counter drug.

"The cost to pharmacy right now is about four times or a little over four times the price that government can acquire it at," she said.

Naloxone at a price everyone can afford

Bodnar said one of the solutions her association is looking at is the government buying the Schedule 2 product at a significantly reduced rate than that available to pharmacies.

"We are currently working to find a solution with the government of Nova Scotia and we're committed to finding a solution that will make naloxone available to those who need it at a price they can afford," she said.

"We've been saying for six months that the price that pharmacy can currently provide the product at is beyond the means of most people who need it and we need to find a provincial solution to that."

She said hopefully pharmacists will be able to deliver a cheaper kit some time in the new year. 

With files from Information Morning

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