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Sen. Tina Smith takes battle over daily opioid deaths to D.C.

By CHRISTOPHER MAGAN | | Pioneer Press

To combat the growing opioid crisis Minnesota needs more funding and flexibility from federal officials to support unique and successful prevention, treatment and law enforcement strategies.

That’s the message state experts asked Democratic Sen. Tina Smith to take back to Washington D.C. as federal lawmakers debate the best way to address what has become a public health crisis.

“We have a pretty good idea what we need to do,” Smith said Friday after hearing from a panel of experts assembled by the Minnesota Hospital Association. “The question is whether we marshal the will and resources to do what we know works.”

Opioids killed 395 Minnesotans in 2016, an 18 percent increase over the year before. Nationwide, more than 33,000 people died from opioid overdoses, roughly 91 people per day.

Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death for people under 50 years old.

Minnesota needs better funding and coordination of prevention efforts, especially when it comes to prescription opioids, which are responsible for four out of five heroin addictions. For too long, drug makers led doctors and patients to believe prescriptions like Oxycontin were safe to use long-term to manage pain.

Last month, a group of Minnesota county attorneys announced they were filing lawsuit against the makers of prescription opioids. State leaders are also working to rein in how doctors prescribe the drugs.

“We need the pharmaceutical companies to come to the table,” said Dr. Rahul Koranne, chief medical officer for the Minnesota Hospitals Association. “They are part of the problem. They have to be part of the solution.”

Smith emphasized her support for a so-called “Penny a Pill” surcharge on opioids that would raise funding to pay for prevention and treatment efforts. Such legislation has bipartisan support in the Minnesota Legislature and also has been proposed in Congress.

“I think it is something we ought to do both at the state and federal level,” Smith said.

The federal government should remove barriers that hinder successful treatment methods including the use of drugs that ween addicts from opioids, health officials said.

Minnesota also needs more resources to provide holistic and ongoing addiction treatment. Too often private and public insurance plans limit the type and duration of treatment available to patients.

And the stigma around addiction also needs to be addressed so addicts feel comfortable seeking help.

Nancy Howe, youth and parent program coordinator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, told Smith about how her son became addicted to opioids and the drugs became an inescapable part of his life.

“It becomes their air,” Howe said. “These people need help. They need medical treatment.”

Law enforcement leaders also need to try new ways to deal with drug addiction.

Paul Schnell, Inver Grove Heights police chief, said it was increasingly obvious that locking people up was not going to solve the growing addiction crisis.

“We can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” Schnell said. “We need to be more than a one-trick pony when it comes to our response to this.”

Smith worked on addressing opioid addiction as lieutenant governor and told the group she plans to continue that advocacy in the Senate where she was recently named to the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee.

“I’m one voice in Washington D.C.,” Smith said, “but I plan to be a strong voice for this.”

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