Rick Abbott - Writer, Photographer, Videographer

Rick Abbott - Reporting - Opiates

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Opiate crisis 'ravaging our families,' but 2 bills in Congress could help

By Rick Abbott

Published  May 28, 2016 - The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead

FARGO—Congressional leaders from North Dakota and Minnesota are backing bills that would help stem the tide of a nationwide epidemic of opiate and heroin abuse and overdose that has claimed thousands of lives in the U.S. and has reared its head locally.

At least 10 people have died from opiate-related overdoses in Fargo-Moorhead so far this year, and dozens of non-fatal overdoses have also been seen.

Minnesota's two Democratic U.S. senators, Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, are co-sponsors of the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which would expand prevention of opioid abuse, expand resources to treat those in jail dealing with addiction, provide for more prescription drug disposal sites and strengthen prescription drug monitoring programs.

North Dakota Democratic U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Republican U.S. Sen. John Hoeven helped pass the bill in the Senate. In the House, a similar bill was voted through with the help of Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., and all Minnesota representatives.

Those bills need to be combined and voted on again before being signed into law by President Barack Obama.

An increasingly divided Congress seems to not have affected lawmakers' resolve to find solutions to the growing problem soon.

"Partisanship should not stand in the way of getting help for addicts and stopping new people from getting hooked," Klobuchar said in an interview Thursday.

Heitkamp and Klobuchar helped introduce a new bill last week, the Budgeting for Opioid Addiction Treatment Act, or LifeBOAT, that would put a 1-cent fee on each milligram of opioid-based prescription drugs, which could generate about $1.5 billion to $2 billion per year.

"[Pharmaceutical companies] have been making a lot of money off this, billions of dollars, so someone has got to start paying for the treatment," Klobuchar said.

Those funds would be used to bolster existing addiction recovery facilities across the U.S. and establish new facilities, increase reimbursement for those providing substance abuse treatment and expand access to treatment.

The availability of treatment is one of the core needs both locally and nationwide, officials say.

"There simply aren't adequate facilities here for long-term treatment of addiction," Moorhead Police Chief David Ebinger said. "We just need to start looking at more resources in the area, and also more affordable resources."

Crime and treatment, not punishment

Some addicts who don't have health insurance are left with few options.

"They frequently have to commit a felony to get treatment for this addiction," Heitkamp said. "We don't want that to be the outcome."

If passed, LifeBOAT would make revenue generated by the fee available to treatment facilities through the Substance Abuse Treatment Block Grant program.

At a news conference introducing LifeBOAT earlier this week, Heitkamp told the story of a mother who called her Fargo office concerned about her daughter.

The mother said her daughter, a straight-A student, had been struggling with addiction and needed treatment, but she couldn't afford it.

The mother said of her daughter, "I hope she gets arrested," Heitkamp said, so that the daughter would be able to get treatment while in jail.

But for addicts arrested in Cass County, treatment services aren't offered at the county jail.

"There is a significant need for the chemical dependency piece," said Lynette Tastad, clinical mental health coordinator at the Cass County Jail.

Tastad said drug users come into the jail with symptoms that mimic mental health problems, which makes it difficult to determine exactly what the inmate needs.

"For the most part, we can keep them sober, hopefully, while they're here, but we're not doing anything to actually solve the underlying problem other than changing their geography," Tastad said.

State, nationwide problem

Soaring rates of heroin use were seen on the East Coast years ago, but the Upper Midwest was relatively insulated.

Use of illicit opiates recently started to climb in North Dakota and Minnesota. Now, it's become a public health crisis, officials say, one that has affected all parts of the region.

"This is, to me, a public health crisis across the country, but it's a public health crisis and a law enforcement crisis in North Dakota," Heitkamp said. "There is no corner of the state that is not affected by this."

Heitkamp will host a discussion and listening session Tuesday morning, May 31, in Bismarck with local law enforcement, treatment providers, educators and community leaders.

In 2014, nearly 19,000 people died in the U.S. due to a prescription opioid overdose, an average of 51 people a day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nearly 200,000 Americans have died of prescription opioid abuse since 1999, the CDC said.

Naloxone, the generic form of heroin antidote drug Narcan, is carried by F-M Ambulance paramedics and Fargo firefighters. Because North Dakota doesn't keep any up-to-date records of drug overdoses, private companies' data has to be used to track them.

F-M Ambulance keeps tabs on how many times the antidote drug is used on overdose patients. It was used 40 times in Fargo-Moorhead in 2011 and it is projected to be used more than 90 times this year, according to an analyst with the company.

Heroin and other opiate addicts, for the most part, get their start with prescription drugs. Four out of five start their habit legally, Klobuchar said.

Those addicts, left without a legal way to get their high, resort to breaking into homes and raiding medicine cabinets that may have old prescription painkillers inside, which has swelled jail rosters in North Dakota with inmates booked on property crimes.

Doctors and hospitals are beginning to rein in their prescribing of these powerful painkillers, sending patients out with only what they need to get by. Klobuchar said this is vital.

"Part of this is education," she said. "If people are going to keep getting 30 of these pills for wisdom teeth, the patients have to start fighting back and saying, 'Uh, what if I get addicted, what is the percentage of people that get addicted? Maybe I could just get three.' You know, it's just insane."

Because the epidemic shows no signs of stopping, with overdoses continuing in Fargo and Moorhead on a weekly basis, there is hope the bills in Congress may help stop overdose deaths.

"We need to have some boots on the ground and we need to have some resources because this crisis is ravaging our families," Heitkamp said.