Distributing naloxone is one of the state’s main initiatives to mitigate drug overdose deaths, which last year increased by 20 percent, to 536 fatalities.

However, public health workers say naloxone became less readily available to people at risk of an overdose after the state Board of Pharmacy raised concerns early this year about state Department of Health efforts to increase its distribution.

The health department had been using contract nurses for off-site outreach to people at risk of overdoses of heroin or prescription painkillers. The outreach also extended to family members of those who may use heroin and prescription drugs.

The pharmacy board’s executive director, Ben Kesner, said the Department of Health is working with the state pharmacy and medical boards to adjust regulations.

“Certain rules have to be applied,” he said. “You can’t just pass [naloxone] out.”

Rules now require a direct consultation with a specified prescriber for naloxone, either a nurse or a physician, according to public health workers.

Santa Fe’s Interfaith Community Shelter and the Santa Fe Recovery Center were both affected, as people at risk of overdose were no longer allowed to directly receive naloxone. Instead, they were referred to on-site workers at La Familia Medical Center’s office.

The public health outreach van that circulates through Northern New Mexico — including Española and Chimayó — also reportedly halted its dispensation of naloxone temporarily until staff nurses assumed responsibility.

In response to the procedural gray area, the Department of Health is revising its guidelines on prescribing naloxone.

Department of Health spokesman Kenny Vigil did not respond to specific requests for comment on the matter. He reiterated previous statements that the state’s goal is to increase access and availability of naloxone.

“The Department of Health works with the Board of Pharmacy and the Board of Medicine to help make the overdose reversal drug available to as many people as possible,” Vigil said in an email.

Rachel O’Connor, the director of Santa Fe County’s Community Services Department, said she’s been encouraged by the Department of Health’s efforts to distribute naloxone rescue kits at the county jail and sheriff’s department.

“Given the fact that drug overdose deaths now exceed the number of people who are dying as the result of motor vehicle crashes, there needs to be a systematic response that includes local communities,” O’Connor said.

“I think that the availability of naloxone … is something that everyone is striving for,” she added. “Working with the state Department of Health to develop a statewide plan for reducing drug overdose and really having some availability of funds to organize locally would be helpful.”

Santa Fe County Community Services Program Manager Kyra Ochoa said that communication and collaboration between state-level agencies and governing boards is essential to making naloxone widely accessible to people most at risk. “It’s happening,” she said, “it’s just that more thinking outside the box needs to also happen.”

A spokesman for the Regulation and Licensing Department, which includes the pharmacy board, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Contact Margaret Wright at 986-3011 or mwright@sfnewmexican.com. Follow her on Twitter @MargaretWrite.