Nashville groups warn of more overdose deaths unless state simplifies access to Narcan

They sent a letter to the state demanding urgency
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Posted at 6:40 PM, Sep 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-02 19:55:03-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — It’s the life-saving medication known to bring people back from an overdose, but some Nashville groups say they’ve been stonewalled by the state, and now supply is running out.

Open Table Nashville and several others sent a letter to the Tennessee Dept. of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (TDMHSAS), calling for simpler access to Narcan.

India Pungarcher works for Open Table Nashville and helps distribute Narcan across the city. On Thursday, she brought four more kits to the Jefferson Street Bridge camp, where Terry Warren says the medication has been a life-saver.

It was only a few weeks ago that Warren saw for himself what Narcan was capable of. At first, all he heard was a woman screaming that someone had overdosed on drugs. Warren says within moments, another camp leader rushed in with Narcan.

“He put it up there and hit the button and the dude came back to life. It was like magic,” Warren said.

The timing was perfect, but the memory is bittersweet. Warren stops to think of how valuable Narcan could’ve been for the four people they’ve lost to overdose so far since last year.

A memorial wall of scriptures stands nearby four bouquets to remember each life. Warren has never been trained on how to use Narcan but says he’s seen enough.

“I don’t know where the camp leader got him, but he knew exactly what to do and showed me how to do it. I want to be able to do the same thing if something like that happens again. Nobody needs to overdose and die. Especially when they got chemicals out here that can save them,” Warren said.

“A popular saying is that every overdose death is a policy failure and that’s something that we firmly believe,” Pungarcher said.

Pungarcher says that recently their request for more Narcan through TDMHSAS has either been delayed or forgotten altogether. If funding was the issue, the letter points out how Tennessee should be able to tap into the millions in federal funding awarded by the American Rescue Plan for substance abuse prevention.

The letter goes on to address how it’s been suggested that individuals can still access Narcan on their own if they’re insured through TennCare. That’s just it, this only applies to less than 20 percent of the people served by Open Table Nashville. Many of them are experiencing homelessness and can’t obtain these kits if they weren’t from these groups.

“We can’t have barriers that exist that make it more difficult or make it a long time for service providers to get access to Narcan,” Pungarcher said.

TDMHSAS officials replied with the following statement:

“TDMHSAS is committed to serving all communities and we are grateful for the partnership and input of Neighborhood Health and many more agencies. Since 2017, our Regional Overdose Prevention Specialists (ROPS) have distributed more than 206,000 units of Narcan and have confirmed more than 27,000 overdose reversals statewide.

Over the last two fiscal years, TDMHSAS has increased the amount of naloxone distributed to Davidson County social services and homeless service agencies by more than 15 percent (+884 units: FY20-5,725, FY21-6,609). That doesn’t include naloxone distributed to MNPD and the Nashville Fire Department. In addition, we have purchased and distributed tens of thousands of more units of naloxone in the last two years than neighboring states.

The work to keep people alive until they are prepared to seek treatment is vital. As this is not solely a state funding issue, we continue to seek partnership with local funding agencies, municipalities, foundations, etc. who are also able to bring resources to this effort.”

Pungarcher says the increase is hardly enough to meet the staggering increase in overdose deaths across the Metro. She understands that Tennessee is a big state and these kits could be needed elsewhere, but she says the numbers prove Nashville needs help.

We learned back in June that 360 people have died from an overdose in Metro Nashville so far this year. Experts predict that number is now closer to 390, which is on record pace to reach 700 deaths by the end of the year.

The Metro Nashville Public Health Department announced on Thursday that they've "detected a surge in drug overdose activity occurring over the last several days in the Donelson area. This time period saw an increase in overdose-related incidents compared to the normal level of observed activity for this particular part of Nashville. The incidents outlined were primarily non-fatal overdose incidents."