CarePoint Health emergency medicine physicians Don Stader and Ramnik Dhaliwal joined Colorado Congresswoman Brittany Pettersen (7th district) on August 31, 2023 — which was International Overdose Awareness Day — at Swedish Medical Center in Englewood as Pettersen announced a new bill aimed at addressing the opioid epidemic.
Dozens of hospital leaders and members of the media gathered outside Swedish as the congresswoman spoke about her Hospitals As Naloxone Distribution Sites (HANDS) Act, which would require Medicare, Medicaid, and TRICARE to cover the cost of naloxone given to patients upon discharge if they are deemed to be at risk of an opioid overdose. The goal of the bill is to prevent overdose deaths, reduce hospital readmissions, and limit financial burden on patients.
Naloxone is an opioid receptor antagonist, which means it binds to opioid receptors and reverses or blocks the effects of other opioids. Administering naloxone rapidly reverses the effects of opioid drugs and restores the patient’s normal respiration, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
The bill is particularly meaningful to Pettersen, whose mom, after injuring her back when Pettersen was 6 years old, found herself “wildly addicted” to opioids after being prescribed “bottles and bottles” of the pain killers, Pettersen said. Her opioid addiction led to other addictions as well — prescription pills, alcohol, fentanyl, and, ultimately, heroin.
“We were never talked to about our options for naloxone,” Pettersen said. “We weren’t given a prescription. I didn’t even know it was an option.”
Thanks to Dr. Stader and the other emergency medicine doctors at Swedish, Pettersen’s mom survived. In fact, she just celebrated her sixth year in recovery.
“Dr. Stader is so special to me. He is a champion,” Pettersen said. “He saved my mom’s life many times.”
Dr. Stader has been an emergency medicine physician at Swedish for nine years. In 2021, he founded The Naloxone Project, the goal of which is “for all hospitals, labor and delivery units, and emergency departments to distribute naloxone to at-risk patients, placing naloxone in patients’ hands prior to their departure from the hospital.” Ninety-seven percent of Colorado’s emergency departments are now enrolled in the program.
Currently, prescriptions for naloxone are written and given to at-risk patients upon their discharge from the hospital, but less than 2% of those patients actually follow through on getting the prescription filled, Dr. Stader said.
“We cannot have a 98% failure rate for a fatal disease,” Dr. Stader said. “The HANDS bill eliminates all those barriers, starting with the reimbursement for hospitals. What it also does is strip the regulations that have made it impossible to hand patients a life-saving drug. Here in Colorado, we have to change the rules so we can provide patients with the care they deserve.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 43 million Americans meet the criteria for substance abuse disorder. Last year alone, 110,000 lives were lost to drug overdose.
If people like Pettersen and her mom continue to share their stories and pieces of legislation like the HANDS Act continue to be introduced and passed, stigmas can be erased and lives can be saved, Dr. Stader said.
“Your ability to give voice to the 43 million Americans who are struggling with addiction and be their champion is your power,” Dr. Stader told Pettersen at the press conference. “And it’s a power that I’m grateful to have in the halls of Congress advocating for policies that our country so sorely needs.”