By Pat Anson, PNN Editor
A new state law that mandates new prescription pads isn’t the only headache faced by doctors and pain patients in California.
Over a dozen bills passed by the state legislature and signed into law by former Gov. Jerry Brown are aimed at addressing the opioid crisis. One of them -- AB 2760 -- requires doctors to “offer” a prescription for naloxone to any patient deemed at high risk of an opioid overdose. Naloxone (Narcan) rapidly reverses the effects of an opioid overdose and has been credited with saving thousands of lives.
The naloxone law does not require patients to fill the prescription, but some pain sufferers are being forced by pharmacists to buy naloxone if they want to get their opioid medications filled. For one patient, it was a choice between pain relief and putting food on the table.
“A medication I don't want, don't need, and didn't ask for, is being forced on me. As in holding my other medication hostage. And each dose of Narcan is $75 for the uninsured. Which I am, because my insurance company won't pay for it,” one reader wrote on PNN’s Facebook page.
“I had to go without groceries to purchase a medication I didn't want, need or ask for. Nine years of never ever breaking a rule, having any adverse effects EVER, and never failing all those ‘gotcha’ tests they inflict on pain patients. So now, in addition to being in pain, I'm hungry. This cannot be.”
Another pain sufferer said she felt treated like a drug addict when a pharmacist forced her to buy Narcan, a nasal spray that contain naloxone.
“Blackmailed by Kaiser to pay $50 for Narcan before they would give me my pain meds. I am retired, disabled, and on fixed income,” wrote a woman who lives with severe arthritis. “I was an RN who worked holidays, weekends, nights, etc. Now this ‘greatest’ country treats me like some scum addict who shoots up illegal drugs.”
The requirement that doctors offer a naloxone prescription applies to so-called “high-risk” patients taking over 90 MME (morphine milligram equivalents) of opioids a day or those who are co-prescribed benzodiazepines, an anti-anxiety medication. Patients who have previously overdosed or have a history of substance abuse are also considered high risk.
But whether high-risk or low-risk, nothing in the law requires a patient to buy naloxone or empowers a pharmacist to withhold medications.
“The law does not make it mandatory for the patient to accept a prescription for naloxone or to fill it but only for the patient and physician to have a thoughtful conversation about whether it would be in the best interest of the patient,” Assemblyman Jim Wood, the bill’s sponsor, said in a statement to PNN.
“We are beginning to hear circumstances where patients are being required to fill the naloxone prescription, and will investigate the circumstances where this is happening because that is not what the law states.”
Naloxone costs only pennies to make and syringes containing generic versions of the drug typically cost about $15 each. Branded and formulated versions such as Narcan are more expensive.
Evzio, a kit that contains two auto-injectors of naloxone, retails for about $3,700 and its manufacturer has been accused of price gouging. The company reportedly raised Evzio’s price by over 600% to “capitalize on the opportunity” of a “well established public health crisis.”
Whether it comes in a spray, injector or syringe, its impractical to expect anyone to give themselves a dose of naloxone.
“What the state and others fail to realize is many pain patients live alone. Even if one were to accidentally overdose and lose consciousness how are they supposed to administer the Narcan?” asks PNN columnist Rochelle Odell, who lives in California. “No one clearly thinks these grandiose ideas through.”
Law enforcement groups, pharmacists and the Medical Board of California supported passage of AB 2760, but the bill was opposed by the Academy of Family Physicians, American College of Emergency Physicians and the California Medical Association (CMA).
“Mandating that a specific medication be prescribed in a variety of situations, regardless of the individual patient characteristics, is inappropriate and places the government between a patient and his or her physician,” the CMA said.
Despite that warning, AB 2760 was passed unanimously by the state Assembly and Senate, signed by the governor, and became law on January 1st.
Prescription Pad Chaos
As PNN has reported, the law of unintended consequences also applies to AB 1753, which requires California doctors to use customized prescription pads for opioids that have uniquely serialized identification numbers.
The idea was to prevent counterfeiting and get more prescriptions filed electronically, but instead the early weeks of the law’s implementation have been marked by chaos. Many doctors were unaware of the new law or unable to get new prescription pads ordered before January 1st. As a result, pharmacists have refused to fill prescriptions written on old pads and patients have been sent away empty-handed.
“I just got my new prescription pads (Monday) at a cost of several hundred dollars, and the change is trivial,” Dr. Richard Buss, a family practice physician in Jackson, told the Sacramento Bee. “At the hospital here, I was next to a doctor who was trying to send a patient home after knee surgery, and the pharmacy wouldn’t honor his prescription because they were old forms.”
Buss said this is the second year in a row that California doctors were not given proper notification of changes in their prescription pads.
“They’re just changing prescription requirements, and then the doctors have to jump through the hoops suddenly, and I’m left with thousands of prescription blanks that are unusable, and that’s probably true for a lot of other doctors,” he said.
Assemblyman Evan Low, who sponsored AB 1753, was unavailable to comment to PNN. In a January 7 letter to California’s Attorney General, Low blamed state regulators for the “unanticipated” confusion caused by his legislation.
“I have been informed that numerous pharmacies have already turned away individuals holding prescriptions written on unserialized forms that are otherwise valid; in the face of possible discipline, dispensers are forced to decide between denying care to their patients and risking action against their license,” Low wrote.
The California Medical Association is drafting new legislation to ensure a smoother transition to the new prescription pads, a process that usually takes weeks or months.