- The Washington Times - Monday, May 14, 2018

A community service provider combatting the District’s opioid crisis has turned to crowdsourcing after running out of the overdose reversal drug naloxone this week.

“We’re tired of the city’s woefully inadequate response to fatal overdoses in D.C.,” the nonprofit group Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive (HIPS) said on its fundraising page. “Fine, we’ll do it ourselves.”

By Monday evening, individuals had donated $3,846 for HIPS to purchase more naloxone — almost $1,000 more than the original asking amount.

“I was a little surprised,” Cyndee Clay, the group’s director, told The Washington Times. “We made and surpassed our goal in less than 48 hours.”

HIPS, which has offered services for 25 years, is one of only two community providers of the opioid overdose reversal drug in the District.

Each month, the D.C. Department of Health gives HIPS a certain number of naloxone kits. On Wednesday, the nonprofit reported it was down to 20 doses, which were unlikely to last the week.

Since January, the group has doled out 750 kits, which it says have saved 230 people overdosing this year. A single dose of naloxone can cost between $20 and $40.

“We applaud that the city has a program,” said Ms. Clay. “What we’re frustrated is that the size and scope isn’t enough to address the epidemic that we’re seeing.”

In a statement to The Times, the Health Department said: “DC Health supplies HIPS with naloxone, a lifesaving medication that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, on a monthly basis. As scheduled, we will have a new batch of naloxone for HIPS this week. We continue to provide funding to HIPS and support it seeking additional funds for its vital work on behalf of District residents.”

Family and Medical Counseling Service Inc., the other D.C. nonprofit that distributes naloxone, says it has yet to run out of naloxone kits, but it has not idea what to do when it does.

“We’ve been able to maintain but we go right to the edge just in time for the next pick-up,” said Dianne Jones, the group’s director of special operations.

The two nonprofit groups receive more kits than they used to when the city first began distributing naloxone to them in 2017, Ms. Jones said, but as fentanyl continues to flood the drug market, they require even more now.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that’s 50 to 100 times more powerful than heroin, but is indistinguishable from it and sells at a cheaper price. It has hit the District particularly hard because it can take two doses of naloxone to reverse a fentanyl overdose.

According to the D.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, there were 114 overdose deaths in 2015, 231 in 2016 and 279 in 2017. The District’s overdose deaths per capita nearly match those of West Virginia and New Hampshire, which are considered the epicenters of the nation’s opioid epidemic.

“The budget needs to grow with the crisis,” Ms. Jones said. “So we’re at the standstill with the kits. We’re kind of handicapped.”

Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, is negotiating the city’s 2019 budget with the D.C. Council and did not respond to several requests for comments.

Council member Vincent Gray, Ward 7 Democrat and chairman of the Health Committee, was not immediately available for comment.

Kaitlyn Boecker of the Drug Policy Alliance says the bigger problem is that community service providers are in an impossible situation.

“We’re asking them to basically solve the entire city’s overdose problem without providing them really anything,” said Ms. Boecker, a policy manager at the advocacy group.

One reason the city relies on the nonprofit groups to distribute naloxone is that the Health Department has not authorized others — like pharmacies — to sell the drug, as Maryland and Virginia have done.

A Health Department spokesman said it is seeking to re-evaluate its strategy and funding.

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