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Leading out of the opioid crisis

Photo: via Wikimedia Commons

Communities throughout the country have struggled with growing numbers of citizens falling into opioid addiction. Many of us have had friends, neighbors or even family members who have been affected.

This addiction commonly begins with the seemingly innocuous use of prescribed medication under the supervision of a medical professional and can develop into dependency before risks are identified. What starts as a prescription to treat pain or an injury can rapidly grow into dependency to the medication. This dependency can lead those afflicted to seek out illicit substances such as heroin when they are unable to attain prescription medications.

As we have seen following tragic deaths of those who have fallen victim due to overdoses or other effects of chronic use, absolutely no one is immune from potential addiction. Opioid addiction has no demographic, socioeconomic or cultural barriers. While the risk is certainly present for everyone, Native Americans and those in rural communities experience an even greater impact. These disturbing trends represent a crisis and is something leaders at all levels of government need to take steps to address.

It’s important to note the extent of the problem. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an estimated 2.1 million people in the United States suffer from a substance abuse disorder related to prescription painkillers and about 467,000 are addicted to heroin. These numbers, unfortunately, are on the rise. In Minnesota, statistics from the Minnesota Department of Health show most drug overdoses are caused by opioid medications. In 1999, 60 Minnesotans died from opioid overdoses. In 2014, this number was 319, a marked increase of 432 percent.

In the state of Minnesota, we have taken steps to address this crisis. In 2016, the Minnesota Legislature passed and Gov. Dayton signed a bill expanding the state’s Prescription Monitoring Program. This program, first launched in 2010, collects information on the controlled substances prescribed to Minnesotans. It is aimed at preventing “doctor shopping” by enabling pharmacists to detect diversion, abuse and misuse of prescriptions. The changes passed in 2016 enable data to be kept on file longer, require doctors who prescribe medication to register for the system and permit licensing agencies to access the database to investigate prescriptions flagged as potentially inappropriate. The system can be improved and may require stronger enforcement to encourage physicians and pharmacists to use it.

In 2014, the Legislature passed a bill improving first responders’ ability to administer naloxone, a medication which can be given in the case of an overdose and can reverse the effects of opioids and prevent tragedies. Beyond just responding to potentially tragic occurrences, those struggling with addiction need further tools. Delivery of the continuum of care for those suffering from addiction needs to be comprehensively reviewed, and treatment and withdrawal management have to be more available as the number of Minnesotans suffering from addiction increases. Undoubtedly, at some level it will be up to the Legislature to provide resources. I would hope we can come together on a bipartisan basis to make this a priority.

Yet it’s not just elected officials and those in the criminal justice community who play an important role in this effort. Physicians, pharmacists and others in the medical community have a growing responsibility to create guidelines to more effectively prescribe painkillers. Identifying potential instances of abuse as the Prescription Monitoring Program allows is helpful, but it’s time for doctors to examine their culture in prescribing these substances and perhaps look at other possibilities. Nationwide, I hope physicians can be part of the solution to help stem this crisis.

Jennifer Schultz

Rep. Jennifer Schultz DFL-Duluth represents District 7A in the Minnesota House. She can be reached at (651) 296-2228.