Maine pharmacists prepare to prescribe overdose-reversing drug

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AUGUSTA — The president of the Maine Board of Pharmacy expects new rules aimed at increasing access to the opioid overdose-reversing drug naloxone to be finalized by the middle of the month.

“The rules are actually finalized, pretty much,” Joe Bruno said May 4.

Bruno said the new rules allowing pharmacists to prescribe and dispense naloxone – sold under the name Narcan – are headed towards the finish line after months of rule-making and some contention.

Bruno said the new rules, if finalized, will include no minimum age pharmacists can prescribe naloxone to, a change to rules first passed by the board in February that mirrors a law passed recently in Augusta over the veto of Gov. Paul LePage.

Under the new rules, pharmacists who take two hours of training would be able to write prescriptions for the drug, which can block the effects of opioids, including heroin and fentanyl. Currently, pharmacists can only fill prescriptions for naloxone.

Bruno explained the rules are now being reviewed by the Maine attorney general’s office following the Pharmacy Board’s approval.

“We’ve been promised it will be very quick,” said Bruno said, whose goal is to have the rules officially finalized by May 15.

Bruno, the president and CEO of a pharmacy chain with nine locations in Maine, said he has already taken the two-hour training and the Maine Pharmacy Association and the University of New England are working to help pharmacists access the necessary training resources.

Maine Pharmacy Association President Cassandra Parsons said in a statement that her organization is developing a continuing education course to train pharmacists in anticipation of the naloxone rules being finalized. She said the two-hour training will be available at the group’s fall meeting. The association is also exploring options for online training.

“Our members realize this is just a small part of the fight against opiate addiction, but one that our association feels can be helpful during this battle,” Parsons said. 

In Portland, University of New England Associate Professor and Residency Director at the College of Pharmacy Ken McCall said Monday a training program exists for students.

By next month, McCall said UNE will also offer online training as part of a continuing education program for pharmacists in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire.

Pharmacists will be trained in 13 specific areas mandated under the new rules, including risk factors, recognizing signs of an overdose and counseling families and friends about opioid use and overdoses.

Naloxone has been available and known by pharmacists for decades, although some of the delivery systems are newer. Pharmacists prescribing medicines such as flu vaccinations is not uncommon in Maine, McCall said.

On Monday, Hannaford Bros. spokesman Eric Blom said the company will train its pharmacists to prescribe naloxone once the rules are in place. Company pharmacies already sell naloxone when prescribed by physicians.

McCall emphasized naloxone is only part of how to help an overdose victim.

“It is important any time you administer naloxone, that you call 911 as well,” he said.

In February, the Pharmacy Board proposed rules restricting naloxone prescriptions from pharmacists to people age 21 or older.

Bruno said in February that the 21-year-old age restriction was a compromise to satisfy Gov. Paul LePage. At the time, LePage’s office equated the age restriction to the one for buying tobacco products.

In response, state Rep. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, speaker of the Maine House, sponsored LD 1892 to specifically remove the age limit.

LD 1892 establishes that pharmacists can prescribe and dispense naloxone “to an individual of any age at risk of experiencing an opioid-related drug overdose.”

The Legislature overrode LePage’s veto May 2.

“This bill will now be a law and we will finally have the clarity necessary to dispense this life-saving drug,” Gideon said in a May 2 press release.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8. Matt Junker can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or Follow him on Twitter: @MattJunker.

Overdose prevention efforts in Portland include the distribution of Narcan; Moira Hoff last June receives an inhaler from needle exchange volunteer Hilary Esslinger. Narcan will soon be available to people of all ages with a pharmacist’s prescription.