Opioid crisis: Candidates, task force talk opioids in Little Falls

LITTLE FALLS--Sometimes, it takes nothing short of a bona fide crisis to bring people of disparate views and backgrounds together, even if they agree on little else.

LITTLE FALLS-Sometimes, it takes nothing short of a bona fide crisis to bring people of disparate views and backgrounds together, even if they agree on little else.

Green Party hopefuls, red Republican stalwarts, true blue DFLers-and that's just the politicos, to say nothing of the doctors, law enforcement officers, social workers and pharmacists who joined them Tuesday, July 31, at St. Gabriel's Hospital in Little Falls.

Their topic of discussion: the opioid epidemic. It was a mixed event in more ways than one-a time for candidates to present their solutions to the crisis, but more an opportunity to listen and learn from the care team of Morrison County's opioid program, Project ECHO. That's where the motley crew of local professionals came in.

The pros

Launched with a $368,000 grant in 2015, ECHO, or Extensions for Community Health Outcomes, represents a holistic, collaborative approach the community adopted. It was meant to counter a flood of 100,000 pills from four local pharmacies into a county of 33,000 people every month.


In essence, it's about incarcerating the sellers and rehabilitating those who are addicted, said Jason McDonald, a Morrison County Sheriff's Office narcotics investigator. The county does this through its care team, the aforementioned doctors, social workers and others who work as a tight-knit coalition to combat an epidemic killing thousands nationally by the year.

"From the beginning, our program has been about getting the pills off the streets, getting people in our program and our hospital off narcotics who didn't really need narcotics, and really monitoring patients more than they've been monitored in the past," said Dr. Kurt DeVine, one of the architects of the program. "It sounds like a simple thing, but when we started this three or four years ago, there really wasn't an effort to do that in clinics."

Primarily, the epidemic takes the form of prescription opioids-painkillers, innocent-looking pills that don't carry the same connotation as similarly dangerous opium substances like black-tar heroin. Prescription opioids are killing people at a rate of 46 per day, more than 20,000 per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"I didn't know we had the heroin issue that we do now," McDonald said. "As we started working together and as I started getting more and more involved in narcotics investigations, I was seeing a lot of the issues we had on the street and it went back to pills."

As such, all these professionals need to be on the same page, Coborn's Pharmacy Manager Gary Sperl said, otherwise exorbitant amounts of drugs-and, inevitably people-fall through the cracks if there's even one weak link.

Now-as a result of its triumphs, including disappearing illicit markets and plummeting hospitalizations-St. Gabriel Hospital's prototypical care model is sprouting up in other communities including Fergus Falls, Alexandria, Montevideo, Mora, Aitkin, Redwood Falls, Hibbing and the Mille Lacs reservation.

The politicos

At the other table sat big-wigs of varying aspirations-8th Congressional District hopefuls, candidates for U.S. Senate and participants in the state's governor's race. They explored the issue of opioid addiction, how best to address it and-particularly-the factors fueling the crisis.


Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis gubernatorial candidate Chris Wright criticized what he called the "narcotics prohibition"-essentially, he said, a society-wide scheme to peddle highly addictive opioids instead of marijuana, certain psychedelics and other substantially safer substances.

While dangerous drugs like fentanyl and oxycodone are deemed acceptable for controlling pain, people who use safer, non-habit-forming marijuana are hounded by militarized police, he said.

"Somebody once told me, 'Well, Chris, can't you do something better with your life than legalize drugs?'" Wright said. "I would just ask the same question in a different way to that person: 'Don't you have something better to do than create a complete police state?'"

Erin Maye Quade-the running mate of DFL-endorsed governor candidate Erin Murphy-took aim at the private sector, where the epidemic doesn't represent a crisis but a business venture executed by pharmaceutical executives.

"This was a crisis created by Big Pharma," Quade said. "They lied to doctors and said (opioids) aren't addictive, that they're wonderful for their patients to treat pain and I think we need to acknowledge we are a society where health care providers want to provide the best care for their patients and insurance providers want to shove them out the door before they're ready."

Later, Joe Radinovich, a DFL candidate for the 8th Congressional District, took Quade's point a step further and said the pharmaceutical industry isn't just manipulating doctors, but influencing the state Legislature in St. Paul to act against Minnesotans' interests.

"In response to (penny-a-pill legislation) the pharmaceutical industry deployed 36 lobbyists to the state capitol-that's more lobbyists than we have senators in the majority party," Radinovich said. "They were able to kill the portion of this that would have imposed a tax that would have forced the pharmaceutical companies to build a pool of funding to address the problem. ... I don't think it's too much to ask for pharmaceutical companies that profited billions of dollars off this epidemic should have to help clean up the mess."

On the other hand, state Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, said he wasn't aware of these lobbyists speaking with Republican colleagues-not in his own personal experience, he said, nor in his capacity as the Minnesota House majority whip.


Kresha cautioned his peers from focusing all their energies and attentions on the pharmaceutical industry-noting the epidemic has a number of sources, including doctors who over-prescribed opioids and pharmacists who served as suppliers.

Instead, he said, it's in the best interest of people for politicians-and more so communities, like Little Falls has done-to pursue every option and combat the opioid epidemic on all fronts.

"The real solution is getting funding for grassroots efforts that are trying to teach communities to get pills off the streets-which, by the way, that damages pharmaceuticals because they're selling less pills," said Kresha, who added other legal means, like federal and state lawsuits, would serve to punish pharmaceuticals. "We'll see it work through, probably in a settlement like tobacco."

Other politicos attending the forum include 8th Congressional DFL candidate Michelle Lee; Steve Emery, a DFL candidate for U.S. Senate; Paula Overby, the Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate; and Bob Anderson, GOP candidate for U.S. Senate.

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