The price of an opioid overdose antidote – increasingly used by substance abusers and their families, paramedics, hospitals and treatment advocates – is skyrocketing, according to national news reports.

The generic equivalent of Narcan – naloxone – has increased in cost up to 17-fold over the past two years, from less than $2 per dose to about $35 to $45, according to the Politico website.

The price increase worries public health advocates in Maine, who see naloxone as a lifesaving antidote to help drug users survive relapses or while waiting to get into treatment programs. A bill that makes it easier to purchase naloxone without a prescription at pharmacies was approved this spring by the Legislature, which overrode a veto by Gov. Paul LePage.

In Portland, fire department paramedics used naloxone 161 times in 2015 to save the lives of people who had overdosed on opioids. Meanwhile, drug overdose deaths have spiked over the past few years – Maine had 272 such deaths in 2015, most caused by heroin, fentanyl or prescription opioids. Nationwide and in Maine, more people now die from drug overdoses than vehicle accidents.

Leslie Clark, CEO of Greater Portland Health, which operates clinics serving low-income populations, said they carry a few doses of naloxone, but she’s mostly worried about addicts and families who want to get naloxone as a safeguard against overdose deaths, but can’t afford it or delay purchasing the antidote because of its price.

“We are in the middle of an epidemic right now, and anything that constitutes a barrier for access is a huge concern,” Clark said.

Steve Cotreau, manager of the Portland Community Recovery Center, a peer support organization for those recovering from drug abuse, said there’s not much awareness yet because many still don’t realize they can buy naloxone, and will soon be able to without a doctor’s prescription. But Cotreau said it bothers him to see the price increase.

“It’s unconscionable, especially what it’s used for, saving a life,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, said the government may need to do more regulation of drug prices, especially when increases make vital drugs like naloxone inaccessible to some.

“The government may need to have a stronger role, especially when patients are in great need,” Pingree said. “Other countries’ governments are more engaged in the system when it comes to the price of drugs.”

Efforts to tamp down price spikes seem to be attracting bipartisan support. Maine Sen. Susan Collins has written letters to drug companies asking them to explain the increases, and other Republican legislators have said the rising cost of naloxone needs to be examined.

One possible solution, Pingree said, is allowing governments to make bulk purchases of drugs – driving down the price – and then having those governments sell them to health care providers. For instance, the state of Maine could buy naloxone in bulk and then sell it at a lower cost to fire departments, drugstores and hospitals.

John Porter, a spokesman for MaineHealth, the parent company of Maine Medical Center, said that although the price of naloxone has risen over the past few years, the biggest concern is that the antidote will become inaccessible to people who want to buy it at the pharmacy and have it at home. He said about 10 doses are stocked for outpatient purchases at the hospital pharmacy.

Portland Fire Chief David Jackson said naloxone and other drugs have had “fairly significant” cost spikes over the past year. He said the department has been able to build the rising prices into its budget, but he’s concerned about future increases.

Bob Fowler, executive director of the Milestone Foundation, which operates a detox center in Portland and a long-term treatment center in Old Orchard Beach, said there’s much greater demand for naloxone now compared with even a few years ago, as awareness of the drug grows and more agencies and people buy it. For instance, Milestone bought doses of naloxone six months ago for the first time.

“The distribution is so much greater than it ever was,” he said.


Correction:  This story was revised at 11:48 a.m., June 7, 2016, to make it clear that price increases were only referring to the cost of naloxone, the generic equivalent of Narcan. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the price increases included cost spikes for Narcan, the brand name for the antidote.