State health officials missed a shot at federal funding that could have supplied hundreds of medical clinics with naloxone, a drug that reverses opioid or heroin overdoses.
Since May, the Department of State Health Services worked with drug addiction experts and advocates to apply for a $1 million federal grant that would have have armed first responders and health clinic staff with the life-saving drug. But DSHS missed the deadline to submit the finished proposal to the feds — and refuse to share documents that could explain why.
According to Mark Kinzly, a member of the Texas Overdose Naloxone Initiative and grant advisor, the grant proposal wasn’t bogged down with expected bureaucratic hurdles. Kinzly said that it had been completed early and signed off by middle management. All the top officials had to do was add their signature and mail it off.
DSHS disagrees, insisting that it was the grant writer's fault for not finishing the proposal in time. But any investigation into what actually went wrong has been met with resistance.
When Texas Tribune reporters requested public records on the grant proposal from DSHS, the health agency refused, and instead sued the attorney general’s office in hopes of keeping the records private. DSHS staffers argued that unfinished drafts weren’t included under open records law, according to the Tribune.
Kinzly said this unusual response only adds to his suspicions. “The fact that DSHS is suing over these records makes me think something else is going on. That’s just not common practice,” he said.
It’s unclear what DSHS may be trying to hide. But state advocates for drug addiction care told the Tribune they suspect it’s political — many Republican lawmakers believe naloxone encourages drug use, despite widespread research showing otherwise.
When someone experiences an opioid overdose, their breathing slows, cutting off needed oxygen to the brain. An injection of naloxone blocks the drug’s effect on the nervous system, effectively reversing an overdose. While it doesn’t cure addiction, it acts as a life preserver.
Some conservative officials, however, think that offering drug abusers a “safety net” only enables them to continue using. Essentially, that saving a person’s life is less important than punishing someone for succumbing to a painful disease.
In Texas, and most of the US, anyone can buy naloxone over-the-counter at CVS or Walgreens. Doctors advise family members and friends of people addicted to opioids carry it on them in case of emergency — similar to how a person with a bee allergy often carries an EpiPen.
And by now, many states require their police officers and first responders to carry the drug on them. The funding from this grant could have introduced the same protocol in Texas, where opioid prescription has spiked in recent years.
Some of the state's more rural areas have been hit hardest by what national health officials call an epidemic — Odessa, Amarillo, Texarkana and Longview are among the top 25 US cities with the highest opioid abuse rates. The majority of Texas’ victims to addiction are hooked on prescription painkillers, like OxyContin, Percocet or Vicodin.
Kinzly doesn’t understand why state officials would be resistant to naloxone access.
“Why would we not take preventative measures to save someone’s life?” Kinzly asked. “This is a moral, Christian state. Should we give lawmakers the right to play God?”