News 8 Investigates – Weighing The Cost

Price of Narcan, an overdose reversing drug, has increased over the years

Heroin is being termed one of the worst epidemics in America and it reaches every nook and cranny of the country including La Crosse.

The highly addictive drug took the lives of nearly 6,000 people in 2012, of those 10 happened in La Crosse County. In 2013, the county had three overdose deaths, but last year, La Crosse had zero overdose deaths. However, that statistic carries a big price tag.

Naloxone, most commonly referred to as Narcan, is being hailed a lifesaver when it comes to a drug overdose. It basically reverses an overdose by getting rid of the high.

In 2012 and 2013, Gundersen Tri-State Ambulance administered about 200 doses of Narcan. Last year, paramedics administered almost 250 doses and so far this year Tri-State has administered about 225 doses.

Although the amount of Narcan being given is on a downward trend the cost of the overdose-reversing drug isn’t. But a Tri-State paramedic it’s a price worth paying because it saves lives and gives people another shot at life.

Marie, 36, is a long-time resident of the area

“I have been married for 15 years and been together for 20. I have a son and daughter,” said Marie.

Her kids keep her going, but about three years ago she ran into some medical issues and started using pain killers.

“I had a script for them,” said Marie.

When those no longer numbed the pain, Marie moved on to something stronger and cheaper — heroin.

“I said it would be a one time thing, you know, no big deal. So did it once and that was it,” said Marie.

All it took was one dose and she was hooked. It was non-stop after that.

“We would do it at someone else’s house or in the bathrooms at laundromats, in the bathroom at Kwik Trips or Taco Johns,” said Marie. “Nobody knew I was living this double life for a very very long time and I was the type that could never get enough I guess.”

Until one day, it was enough and Marie overdosed.

“The next thing I know I am getting CPR on my chest,” said Marie.

The paramedics gave Marie a dose of Narcan.

“It works very quickly, very dramatically and very well. A person will go from not breathing to being awake and upset with you in a matter of 30 seconds,” said Crystal Wallin, a critical care paramedic with Gundersen Tri-State.

Wallin said an emergency call for an overdose is more frequent than not.

“You are going to do it likely once a week, sometimes multiple in a day,” said Wallin.

“Last year in 2014, we administered Narcan 242 times,” said Tom Tornstrom, executive director for Gundersen Tri-State Ambulance.

One of those doses was given to 23-year-old Megan.

“I was with my boyfriend at the time and I had shot up heroin and I remember going to the bathroom and then I just remember waking up to the paramedics over me,” said Megan.

Between Megan and Marie, they’ve collectively overdosed on heroin nine times.

“That’s just not something in your mind, you know, like that’s not going to happen to me, why would that happen to me?” said Megan.

“You don’t think you’re going to be that person,” said Marie. “You just keep doing it, it’s an addiction just like anything else. You can’t just stop, you can’t, no matter how hard you try.”

Each time they’ve overdosed, Narcan brought them back but the price of saving a life has increased over the years.

“We’ve more than doubled since 2012,” said Tornstrom.

Tornstrom said the paramedics used to carry a 10CC, or 10 milliliter, vial of Narcan.

“That was a multi-dose vial and we could draw it up and re-draw it up,” said Tornstrom.

However, the cost for that vial has shot up.

“In 2011, 2012, we were in the $20-$30 range for that vial,” said Tornstrom. “The last I have seen is it’s about $165.”

Because of the cost increase, Tri-State Ambulance has started to use pre-filled Narcan syringes instead, but the cost of those too has gone up.

“For the syringes we paid $20.99 and they are now $45 apiece,” said Tornstrom.

So whose paying for the increase? Tornstrom said it isn’t taxpayers.

“All of our revenue, our entire budget is funded by patient services,” said Tornstrom.

It isn’t those who receive Narcan directly either.

“It’s not a billable cost so we can’t recover that money by billing patients for Narcan. It just gets absorbed in our chart and our entire cost of doing business,” said Tornstrom.

That means Gundersen Tri-State Ambulance is absorbing the cost, putting thousands of dollars towards the remedy every year.

“Typically $10,000 – $12,000 for the administered doses. We have a pretty good size budget, but that certainly is an impact. That could be used for safety equipment or buying AED’s for community organizations or police departments as we have done in the past,” said Tornstrom.

However, Tornstrom said the price to save a life is always worth the cost.

“People are allowed to make mistakes in life. If it happens, we don’t want to see them die; it’s not punishment by death because they chose to take heroin,” said Tornstrom.

“People think addicts are junkies or the skid row type person and they are not. I mean, I don’t look like a person that’s an addict, like I said you can’t just stop, you can’t,” said Marie.

“Our job is simply to help them. Someone calls, we go and we help. We don’t judge,” said Wallin.

And by helping, the paramedics hope to give those suffering from addiction another chance.

“An increase cost on a new price at life? God how do you measure that? You don’t,” said Wallin.

Without Narcan, Marie and Megan wouldn’t be here.

“A grave and a headstone. I mean, I hate to be so blunt, but yeah. I would be six feet under a long time ago,” said Marie.

“I mean I wouldn’t be here, I would not be here if it wasn’t for Narcan,” said Megan.

And they wouldn’t be excited about their drug-free future either.

“I want to go to school and I want to get a good job and you know, live a normal life,” said Megan.

“Because of Narcan, I am able to wake up every morning with my kids, kiss my husband goodbye, come to work and enjoy life,” said Marie.

Besides Gundersen Tri-State Ambulance, the La Crosse Fire Department is now carrying Narcan, along with the AIDS Resource Center of La Crosse because of its results.

Just last week, Wisconsin passed a bill allowing pharmacies to offer Narcan to people without a prescription in certain circumstances.

Some critics argue that if drug addicts know about Narcan, it won’t force them to quit and seek help. News 8 asked Marie and Megan that question.

“They have never experienced it. Would you say that to someone who has heart disease or diabetes? We are not going to give you your insulin because it’s enabling you, no we aren’t,” said Marie.

“I didn’t think, “Oh yeah I am going to use because there is Narcan out there and it will save my life,” that’s not what I thought,” said Megan.

Even though Narcan is more available, even for everyday citizens, paramedics say there is more to making sure someone is OK after overdosing, than just giving them Narcan. They say you have to continue to check the person’s heart rate, blood pressure so even if someone is given Narcan, it’s still a good idea to get them checked out by a medical professional.

Due to federal privacy rules, also known as HIPPA, paramedics are not allowed to report drug overdose patients to a recovery agency without consent.

Overdose patients have to seek help on their own. If you or someone is struggling with addiction, contact Coulee Council on Addictions at 608-784-4177.