Recent news headlines announced there were 167 overdose deaths in Minnesota’s St. Louis County between 2011 and 2016. In human terms that equates to 167 families torn apart and left grieving the loss of a loved one. Beyond the pain and suffering, this epidemic is stretching our medical and social service systems beyond the limit. Multiply these tragic deaths by the 87 counties in the state....we can begin to understand the size and scope of this crisis touching the lives of our families and friends.
Our nation faces one of our greatest battles, the opioid epidemic. Opioid is just another name for synthetic heroin. Opioids are prescribed legally, heroin is not; but make no mistake, they are the same. Since 1999, the death toll from opioid overdoses has increased by a multiple of 5. HHS latest data shows that in 2016, over 42,249 Americans died from overdoses, of which 40 percent were from prescription opioids. Overdoses now exceed the number of deaths from car accidents, and has actually lowered our nation’s life expectancy rate.
How did this happen?
In the 1990’s, pharmaceutical companies assured the medical community that opioids would not cause their patients to be addicted to opioid pain relievers. The medical community did not question this assertion. Consequently, healthcare providers began to prescribe them at great rates. The United States makes up less than 5 percent of the world’s population and yet consumes over 90 percent of the opioids prescribed in the world. 70 percent of all Heroin users report using prescription opioids at the start of their addiction. The drugs were either prescribed by medical providers or stolen from medicine cabinets.
The terrible cost of this epidemic is in the tragic death tolls of our children. In addition to the death toll, this epidemic is estimated to cost our nation over 500 billion a year in treatment, inpatients hospital, medical examiner, criminal and judicial costs.
The people of the 8th Congressional District have not escaped this deadly epidemic. St. Louis County leads the State of Minnesota in opioid overdoses per capita. Our counties and cities have made substantial increases in spending to supply EMS responders with Naloxone also called Narcan to reverse the opioid overdoses, thus saving many lives. Our law enforcement has increased officer staffing in order to stop heroin dealers whom triple their profits by selling their “product” here in the Northland. Fentanyl, a deadly drug, imported from China, that is 50 times more deadly than heroin, is being added to heroin and other drugs, increasing the death toll.
How do we fight this Opioid Epidemic?
First, we must increase availability of treatment programming to addicts. Currently, it can take 5 to 7 weeks to get placed in a treatment program. That is unacceptable and reckless. Asking a heroin addict to stay clean for 5 to 7 weeks is almost impossible. Anyone who has tried to quit smoking knows how tough it was. Heroin withdrawal without medical supervision can cause serious side effects and death. Opioid addicts who have abstained from using for a period of time are more likely to overdose and possibly die when they resume using. We must have treatment available when the addict agrees to seek help. Help may come from a 12 step based treatment or medically assisted treatment i.e., the use of methadone or Suboxone, or a combination of both.
We need to support Harm Reduction programs.
These programs provide clean syringes and other items used to shoot up heroin. These programs reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis C, and provide testing for such diseases along with counseling. We should also consider safe injection sites where addicts can safely inject their drugs and limit the exposure of discarded needles in our public spaces. These safe injection sites although controversial would also provide outreach and counseling to promote and provide access to treatment. Families and addicts must be supplied with the overdose reversal drug Naloxone (Narcan). This drug must be readily available to communities and our First Responders. We need to reduce the stigma associated with this deadly addiction. Families and individuals must feel safe and encouraged to ask for help and support.
Two other areas that must be part of this solution are Support and Education.
It is one thing to provide treatment to the addict, but our drug courts have proven that long term support of the addict is what creates long term sobriety. We must develop best practice programs for long term support; and as a community, provide programs and job opportunities that encourage and reward success.
And let’s not forget the children and families of those addicted. St. Louis County again leads the State of Minnesota in children placed in foster care programs per capita. This is a huge financial burden on our Counties and School Districts. If elected, I will work to obtain Federal funds to assist our local agencies who work with the victims of addicted family members.
Educational programs must be funded to provide education in our schools and public announcements created to keep our prescriptions out of the reach of drug seekers. Mandate that prescribers and pharmacies join a nationwide reporting and drug tracking system, to reduce drug seekers trying to use multiple doctors and pharmacies to obtain opioids. Prescribers must also be educated in lowering the amount of pain medicines prescribed to patients. I have heard too many parents tell me that their children came home with 40 Oxycodone pills after having their wisdom teeth removed. We must change our practices. Prescribers who continue to provide large amounts of opioids need to be investigated by law enforcement and prosecuted.
The big pharmaceutical companies - Big Pharma - are responsible for creating this epidemic. I will hold them responsible. I will call out those who accept campaign contributions from Big Pharma, as well as those who refuse to hold them accountable.
When I am elected, I will work to increase federal funding for residential treatment programs, harm reduction programs and support and educational programs. I will do whatever it takes to assist and increase financial support of our children in foster care and their families who also suffer from this deadly epidemic. Anyone who wants and needs help should be able to get help. This is a national tragedy. We cannot lose any more children to this deadly epidemic.