Opioid Abuse is Ripping Apart North Dakota’s Communities — and it’s Past Time to Take Action

After breaking his hip in a motorcycle accident, Chad Meyers from Bismarck was given opiates by his doctor to deal with the pain. Nine months later, he overdosed. Later, Chad had his left lung and rib cage removed— following which he was prescribed more opiates.

“Because of my condition, my primary care physician continued giving me opiates, and that was my life. I could not live, I couldn’t function. I could not do nothin’ without my pain medications. I couldn’t get out of bed. I couldn’t walk across this room five years ago.” — Chad Meyers, Bismarck Tribune, 2016

During a roundtable discussion on opioid abuse I held in Bismarck in May with local leaders, Chad shared his story, his struggle to recovery, and the unconditional support from his grandmother that he was fortunate to have.

Unfortunately, the rise in drug abuse is not a new issue in North Dakota. Since I joined the U.S. Senate, I’ve been working diligently with top officials to make sure North Dakota has the resources and attention it needs to combat this heartbreaking epidemic.

If you’ve picked up a North Dakota newspaper lately, turned on the local news, or talked with folks in your community, chances are you’ve heard many tragic stories about the rise of opioid and drug abuse and how it is tearing apart families and communities.

In July 2013, just 17 people were being treated for heroin abuse, but by last December that number jumped to 198 people as reports of heroin use have increased every single month from mid-2013 through 2015.

Anyone who thinks that the rampant drug and opioid abuse happening in our communities doesn’t have long-term consequences is wrong. It’s a public health emergency, and we need to treat it that way.

Building off of the work I’ve been doing the past three years, this summer I brought together public health professionals, law enforcement officials, treatment specialists, educators, and local officials in communities across North Dakota to discuss immediate needs, share best practices, and build a coordinated effort against opioid abuse and addiction.

Starting first in Bismarck in May, and just this week in Grand Forks, Fargo, and Jamestown, I’m fighting to get to the root of this problem and help develop a comprehensive approach that will drive illicit drug abuse out of the communities we call home.

The folks on the ground have seen firsthand the uptick in drug abuse and have started to take action — but it’s critical that we work together to make sure those in need have access to affordable long-term treatment. The discussions I’ve had with experts and community leaders enabled us all to hear about the work being done on all sides so we can learn from one another, build on best practices, and identify areas of need.

Sen. Heitkamp and local officials from Fargo discuss solutions to address North Dakota’s opioid abuse crisis on August 9, 2016.

Following my first discussion in Bismarck in May, I brought back the concerns of North Dakota’s health, law enforcement, and treatment specialists to a U.S. Senate discussion on solutions to help combat the demand-side of the national epidemic. These concerns included the need for greater access to medication-assistance and available treatment in the recovery process, and to raise awareness about opioid addiction as a lifelong battle. I also highlighted the need to recognize the critical role prescribers can play in addressing the crisis by helping set more realistic patient expectations on pain and address opioid abuse as both a law enforcement issue and the public health emergency that it is.

Chad Meyers was lucky. He may have to carry an oxygen tank with him the rest of his life, but he was lucky because for too many North Dakotans, there is no treatment. The lack of resources in our communities is forcing facilities to turn people away — and that’s not the way it should be in America.

There’s a guidance counselor in Williston who had a student come in distraught because her boyfriend was addicted to heroin and meth. Finally the student was able to convince her boyfriend to get treatment. Anyone who knows about treatment knows that it is a huge opportunity and critical — yet often short — time when the person agrees to and seeks out treatment. And it might not come around again. Asking for help doesn’t happen every day, and often results from something happening and that person hitting rock bottom. The student’s boyfriend went in to a treatment center seeking help and was told to come back in three months — that is the soonest they would be able to offer him treatment. I’ll never know if that young man was a heroin overdose statistic in Willison — but he should have been able to get access to treatment the moment he needed it.

Williston isn’t the only place — I’ve heard similar heartbreaking stories on MHA Nation, in Fargo, Grand Forks, and all across the state. Which is why I helped introduce a bill in the U.S. Senate to provide needed federal funds for opioid intervention and treatment centers.

I also fought to help pass bipartisan legislation in the U.S. Senate to broaden tools available to law enforcement, first responders, and state prescription drug monitoring programs — a challenge I’ve heard about from folks on the front lines of this epidemic. The bill also includes my legislation that would close federal drug laws to stop foreign drug traffickers before their products reach our borders.

Opioid abuse is devastating communities — especially those hit hardest by the oil price downturn, and those in poverty. Since 2013 when I first joined the U.S. Senate, I’ve been working to address these challenges head on. In addition to introducing and pushing for legislation to better support North Dakotans, I’ve brought both the former and current heads of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy to North Dakota to discuss ways to defeat drug abuse in the Bakken oil region — which led to increased resources for western North Dakota.

I’ve also been engaging with facility leaders, medical staff, and tribal leaders at treatment centers in North Dakota, including MHA Nation’s Circle of Life Drug Treatment Center and Mercy Hospital in Devils Lake. During these discussions, I heard about the unique challenges facilities face — many of which were due to a lack of the types of recovery resources my bill works to provide.

But as drug abuse continues to rise and spread across our state, we need more resources and support for our communities — and it’s Congress’ job to work with state and local officials to make sure they have the resources they need to respond.

Until you see communities ravaged and families in despair, you don’t understand what is happening each and every day in our own backyard. Congress has to be motivated for change. We cannot let this go another generation and expect good outcomes in this country — we have to fix this problem now.

I’m committed to fighting for my bill, continuing to work with state, local, and federal officials to make sure there is access to affordable and long-term treatment, and to making sure we address the growing opioid epidemic head on.

Archive: Senator Heidi Heitkamp

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