When Justin Phillips lost her son Aaron to a heroin overdose in October of 2013, she didn’t know there was a drug that could have saved his life. Now, she’s a passionate advocate of making naloxone available to people like her. At a recent Indiana House committee meeting, she told lawmakers that she doesn’t want other parents to go through what she did.
“Aaron was a brother, a friend, a talented quarterback, and an adolescent without a fully-formed decision-making center in his brain,” she said. “Aaron only used heroin for four short months. And he really wanted to quit.”
Sen. Jim Merritt (R-Indianapolis) is Justin Phillips' neighbor and used to watch Aaron play football at Lawrence North High School. He’s the author legislation which would make it legal for doctors to prescribe naloxone to friends and family members of addicts. It passed the Indiana Senate last month.
“What this piece of legislation does is it gives the pharmacist amnesty, it gives the doctor amnesty, it allows a mom who might have an addict for a son, or someone in the cul-de-sac the ability to go to the doctor, go to the pharmacy and get this life-saving drug,” Merritt says.
Administered as an injection, or as a nasal spray, naloxone, also called narcan, can bring someone from unconscious and barely breathing to sitting up and talking in a minute or two. Narcan attaches to the brain’s opioid receptors. It blocks the access of opioids, and stops their effect almost instantly. The drug works for both prescription painkillers and heroin. And it works best if it’s administered quickly.
Last year, a state law expanded its use from paramedics, who have used it for decades, to first responders like fire and police. This year’s bill would take that a step further.
“For me the thing with making naloxone available is everyone deserves a second chance,” Justin Phillips says.
Phillips, who now runs the non-profit Overdose Lifeline, helped Merritt research similar state laws while he was drafting the legislation. Indiana’s is even nicknamed “Aaron’s law,” after her son.
But she and other advocates are not happy with the bill as it came out of the Senate. That’s because it requires pharmacists to report the names and birthdates of everyone who fills a naloxone prescription as part of Indiana’s prescription drug monitoring program, called Inspect. Doctors, pharmacists and law enforcement officers have access to the information in the database.
Phillips says that if naloxone prescriptions are tracked along with identities, it will deter addicts and their families from asking for the drug.
“It's gonna label me, my family, my child, whoever is getting that prescription, because it's going to register me as someone who's getting a drug to save someone from an overdose,” she says. “Somewhere, somebody might know. And it's a very difficult stigma for a parent.”
But Merritt says to fight the heroin epidemic, the state needs data.
“What we need is how many prescriptions of narcan have been purchased in a year. One, we have to get rid of the stigma of addiction, that it's an illness or a sickness. And two, we have to show that it's widespread,” he says.
At first, he favored tracking prescriptions through Inspect. But now Merritt is working with other lawmakers on an alternate system that would keep a count of prescriptions, but not collect personal data. He hopes the House will pass his bill without the Inspect rule.