If you spend much, or any, time on the internet then it’s likely you’ve seen the debate about why addicts are given free Narcan- an overdose reversal drug given as a life-saving measure in an emergency. The argument goes that if an addict can receive Narcan for free, then those with cancer should receive free Chemotherapy treatments.
Other arguments state that if Narcan is free then Insulin should be free to Diabetics, or that those who suffer anaphylaxis from allergic reactions should receive free Epi pens. If Narcan is truly free, then these are valid arguments, but they raise the question of whether the myth about free Narcan is true or not.
So, Is Narcan Really Free?
The fact is, Narcan is not actually free. When Narcan is administered by emergency personnel, the person who receives the dose is sent a bill. Additionally, many states have a mandate them to be transported to a hospital by ambulance if they have received a Narcan treatment. In these states, not only does the recipient receive a bill for Narcan, but also for the ambulance ride and hospital visit. The website goodrx.com- a service which compares prices of drugs at different pharmacies- lists a single dose of Narcan at $129.99 or more.
In the state of Arizona, the cost of an ambulance ride can start around $1000, increasing based on mileage and services. Finally, data shows that the average overdose visit costs hospitals $92,408 to treat. This means that a patient experiencing an overdose can expect a hospital bill in the tens of thousands, if they have insurance. If not, they could be liable for the entire amount. Taking these numbers into account, the true cost of Narcan can reach nearly $100,000 for the recipient.
How Does It Compare to Other Life Saving Drugs?
For comparison, let’s look at the price of Epi Pens or Insulin. Chemotherapy is not considered an emergency treatment, so we’ll come back to that. The first drug, the Epi Pen, is listed on goodrx.com starting at $118.07 for a two count of the autoinjectors and does not usually require a trip to the hospital or an ambulance ride.
Insulin is more expensive and can cost between $144-$500 a vial. Insulin must be used consistently to avoid increases or decreases in blood sugar levels with can cause life threatening side effects. On average, a Type 1 Diabetic needs between .5 and 1 units of insulin per Kg of body weight a day.
To give some perspective, the average American male weighs 191 lbs. which equals about 54 Kg. This means the average American male with Type 1 Diabetes would need to administer 27-54 units of Insulin a day. A vial of insulin contains 1000 units, so he would go through a vial of Insulin every 18-37 days. With the cost of Insulin ranging from $144 to about $500 per vial, this individual would need to spend between $1440 a year on the low end, or up to nearly $10,000 per year on the high end to afford this care. If administered correctly, Insulin would remove the need to be treated emergently, but if the Diabetic is not using- or can’t afford- their required dose, they may also need emergency treatment requiring an ambulance ride and Hospital visit.
While these drugs are both very expensive, the relative cost for an Epi Pen is a small fraction of either Insulin or Narcan. Insulin is the most comparable in price to Narcan when administered emergently, but neither of these drugs are anywhere near free.
So Then, Why Do People Think It’s Free?
Narcan got the reputation of being free due to community support programs that would give free doses. This means is that members of the community, activism groups, or harm reduction groups, would purchase Narcan to the give out to members of the community to use in emergencies. As a result, addicts, their family members, friends, or even just concerned members of their community end up with doses of Narcan free of charge. However, this doesn’t mean that the medication was free. It only means that someone else paid the cost of the medication.
A similar comparison would be defibrillators. It is very common to find businesses with emergency defibrillators hanging on their walls, or as part of their first aid kits. In an emergent situation, such as if someone’s heart stops inside of that business, they would be able to revive that person with the defibrillators the company has invested in, and they will not charge that person for the use of their device. The individual who was revived has not been treated, just the same as the person who received Narcan. In both instances, the individual was revived by a product that was paid for by someone else- not a free product- and will need to treat the underlying ailment that caused them to need emergency care.
So Then, what is the Cost of Treatment for Various Ailments?
The cost of treating a disease is very different than the cost of reviving someone in an emergency. This is truly where a more accurate comparison between addiction and cancer comes in. Cancer often requires Chemotherapy, Radiation, or even surgical intervention. It is a very expensive process- with the average cost of cancer treating medication being over $100,000- $150,000 per year. Cancer can also be a relapsing disease, meaning that if the cancer returns after treatment, the patient would need to pay for a new round of treatment. Help can be provided to those struggling with the cost. You can find resources for assistance on sites such as cancer.net
The cost of treatment for Addiction can range from $12,000-$60,000 for a 90 day to 6 month inpatient program. Similar to cancer, there are resources for those who cannot afford those prices. According to Find Rehab Centers, some facilities cater specifically to low income families, or take State Insurance that is provided by state- level government for those below the poverty line. Addiction is also considered a relapsing disease, meaning that if an addict relapses after treatment, they will have to pay for treatment again.
The treatment for Type 1 Diabetes is Insulin, and when used correctly, the cost per year is between $2000-$10,000. The treatment for Anaphylactic Shock is Epinephrine, the Epi Pen, which costs about $59 per use. With proper prevention (avoiding what you’re allergic to) you should not need to use your Epi Pen, but no one can avoid allergens with 100% accuracy. On average, most adults who experience anaphylaxis use 1 Epi Pen per year.
So, What’s the Conclusion?
To conclude, this myth is just that- a myth. Narcan is not a free medication for addicts, and addicted individuals still need to undergo expensive treatments after they have received Narcan to reverse a fatal overdose. More importantly, though, the debate needs to end. No one should have to pay huge prices for life saving measures, no matter their social standing. Those in need should support one another, and turn their attentions away from comparing, and toward helping.