SPRINGFIELD — As overdose deaths continue to rise nationwide, Illinois lawmakers this month took aim at the drug contributing to many accidental overdoses.
On the last day of its spring session, the Illinois General Assembly passed, with no opposition, a bill that will allow pharmacists and physicians to dispense fentanyl and other drug testing supplies. Some local pharmacists say it could be instrumental in preventing overdose deaths and fighting the fentanyl crisis in Illinois.
“There really isn’t a reason why we shouldn’t also have this ability to have testing equipment available for patients,” said Lauren Young, the operations manager for Dale’s Southlake Pharmacy in Decatur and the other Colee family pharmacies in Decatur and Forsyth.
If House Bill 4556 is signed into law by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, pharmacists will be able to provide, for some patients, tests that determine if certain drugs have been laced with fentanyl.
These tests are helpful, Young said, because many people who suffer from fentanyl-related overdoses or deaths never intended to take fentanyl in the first place.
Allowing individuals to test drugs for the presence of fentanyl before they take them means more people will have the chance to avoid accidental and unknowing fentanyl overdoses, she said.
“This is not just a gateway drug or anything like that,” Young said. “A lot of times the people that are impacted by this are someone who has been dealing with pain issues for a long time, and they have just exhausted all of their avenues, and so they end up turning to a different supplier.”
Health care providers know illicit drugs are being manufactured, sold and consumed, Young said. They still want their patients to be aware of what they’re consuming and to be able to prevent death when possible.
“As pharmacists and part of the health care team, we know that they’re fighting that addiction every single day,” said Erica Colee, Young’s sister and one of the pharmacists at the Colee family pharmacies. “So it’s not that we want them to be able to have access to (illicit drugs), but I want them to at least not be blindsided with what they have.”
Colee’s Community Pharmacy is located inside Crossing Healthcare, which operates an addiction treatment facility. Both Young and Colee said they see the devastation of opioid addiction on their patients and in their community.
“It doesn’t matter what anyone’s background is. It affects everyone,” Colee said. “It could be your brother, your grandma, your aunt, your uncle. It’s a quiet addiction.”
Amid the ongoing opioid epidemic, concerns about fentanyl have grown in recent years.
In its pharmaceutical form, fentanyl is a synthetic opioid reserved for treating severe pain, usually for patients who’ve suffered from serious trauma like car accidents or gun violence, said Cindi Reed, pharmacist and owner of Oakwood Apothecary in Sullivan and Dick’s Pharmacy in Arthur.
It’s often prescribed in the form of a transdermal patch, but those prescriptions aren’t very common, she said. Between her two pharmacies, she distributes only about 30 fentanyl patches a month for three patients.
Reed said fentanyl is rarely used because it’s so potent and because health care providers are wary of the ways it can be abused.
According to the CDC, most recent fentanyl-related overdoses and deaths in the United States are linked to fentanyl made and sold illegally and mixed with other drugs, with or without the user’s knowledge.
Fentanyl in any form is extremely powerful, about 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the United States Drug Enforcement Administration.
“Fentanyl is so concentrated. It’s incredibly potent. Most of the opiates that we normally talk about, the hydrocodones, the oxycodones, you’re talking in milligrams,” Reed said. “Fentanyl is dosed in micrograms.”
But illicit drug manufacturers don’t carefully measure doses like pharmacists do. Just 2 milligrams of fentanyl can be lethal depending on a person’s size or other factors.
Recent data from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics showed the United States topped 100,000 overdose deaths in the 12-month period from April 2020 to April 2021, a 28.5% increase from the year before.
Young said the pandemic worsened already existing mental health and addiction problems for many people.
“I think with everything that’s happened, people are just trying to get to a better place,” she said. “And I think with the pandemic, that made it hard for people to hide some of those habits they were having, whether it was addiction issues or something else.”
Colee said HB4556 is a first step toward empowering health care professionals to fight against the rise in overdoses.
How to fight back against increasing numbers of fentanyl overdoses across the state was a recurring debate for legislators in the last few weeks of session.
State Sen. Sally Turner, R-Beason, said she voted for HB4556 because access to drug testing supplies could help not just individuals struggling with addiction, but health care and emergency workers, too.
Turner would have liked for the bill to include a stipulation requiring health care providers to dispense information about addiction and treatment along with the testing strips. Spreading awareness about the dangers of fentanyl should be a priority, she said.
“It’s like a loaded gun,” Turner said of the drug. “It’s a death sentence.”
Turner opposed another bill meant to address the fentanyl crisis, House Bill 0017, which would have granted immunity from prosecution for possession of small amounts of fentanyl to people seeking medical treatment for an overdose.
She and many of her Republican colleagues in the Senate took issue with specific language in the bill referring to “3 grams of a substance containing fentanyl.”
While Democrats argued that language was necessary because small amounts of fentanyl are often used to lace larger amounts of other drugs, Republicans said it was easy to misinterpret, and likely to be confusing in the courts.
During Senate debate on HB0017, Turner and another senator, Patricia Van Pelt, D-Chicago, grew emotional discussing loved ones lost to accidental fentanyl overdoses.
“We had a son die of fentanyl, and he had no idea that fentanyl was laced in what he had,” Turner said on the Senate floor. “So, what I’m saying today is that fentanyl doesn’t even compare with any of these (other) drugs.”
HB0017 was pulled from the record before the Senate could issue a final vote, an attempt by its sponsor to find a way to pass the bill in the future.
Turner said lawmakers need to be careful when crafting bills addressing fentanyl because of how dangerous even a small amount of the substance could be.
“Any drug dealer that’s adding fentanyl into their drugs, they’re trying to get those people more addicted. But they aren’t chemists, so they don’t even know what the difference is if you put 1 gram, a half a gram, whatever,” Turner said. “They’re killing people. That’s the way I look at it. I have no sympathy about fentanyl whatsoever.”
HB4556 was sent to the governor’s desk April 20, and with no opposition in the General Assembly, it’s likely to be signed into law soon.
While the bill won’t solve the fentanyl overdose crisis, it will likely help ease the pain, Reed said.
“If it saves a single life, it’s totally worth it.”
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April 29, 2022 at 03:07PM