Heitkamp: Bringing opioid abuse out of the shadows

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, women used to come up to me and whisper in hushed solidarity: "I'm a survivor." Soon, we took breast cancer out of the shadows, put on pink ribbons, and raised a national campaign to beat it.

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When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, women used to come up to me and whisper in hushed solidarity: “I’m a survivor.” Soon, we took breast cancer out of the shadows, put on pink ribbons, and raised a national campaign to beat it.
In Grand Forks, Fargo, and Jamestown this week, I spoke with law enforcement, public health, and treatment and recovery leaders about another challenge that’s too often in the shadows - the opioid abuse crisis. This crisis has hit North Dakota hard in recent years, with opioid overdose-related deaths jumping 125 percent from 2013 to 2014 alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Just as we brought the fight against breast cancer out in the open, we must tackle opioid addiction and abuse as the public health crisis that it is. In each city this week, brave voices that have been touched by opioid abuse spoke out to bring this issue to light - and to call for a community-wide response. Jen in Grand Forks told me about how her heart skips a beat every time she hears that her sister - who has struggled with addiction for 10 years since being prescribed opioids for her chronic headaches - is alive, as she did that very morning after losing contact with her for three days. Nikki in Fargo spoke about losing her two children. Her daughter committed suicide after turning to opioids to self-medicate her depression, and her son - a promising music student - overdosed on the opioids he used to cope with the loss of his sister.  Tony in Jamestown discussed his journey to lifelong recovery, which began with an opioid prescription for a shoulder dislocation when he was just 14 years old. Soon he became hooked on the way opioids “washed away the pain” of social situations and started dislocating his own shoulder to obtain new prescriptions.  In each city, those who have lost, who fear loss, and who have fought for their lives spoke about the need to erase the stigma of addiction, and to work on all sides to wage a winning battle against opioid abuse. And it’s not just community members who have experienced tragedy stemming from opioid abuse. Grand Forks Police Chief Mark Nelson watched his son serve as a pallbearer for his 19-year-old best friend who succumbed to opioid abuse - a young man Chief Nelson said had “grown up in my house.” Fargo Police Chief David Todd told me about attending a funeral recently for the child of his high school classmates. Chiefs Nelson, Todd and officers in each city spoke with one resounding voice: “We cannot arrest our way out of this problem - we need a community-wide response.” When loved ones turn to correctional facilities for lack of treatment options - with parents calling officers, pleading to keep their children in jail to get them clean - we know stronger treatment and recovery resources are sorely needed. In the Senate, I’m working to provide lasting solutions to this growing crisis, helping pass legislation this spring that expands tools for our first responders, law enforcement and prescription drug monitoring programs. That’s a good step forward, and it was signed into law, along with my bipartisan bill to close loopholes preventing law enforcement from going after drug traffickers before their poisons reach our borders. But these actions are not enough to fully take on a crisis that is spreading quickly. The North Dakota Department of Health told us in Grand Forks that emergency rooms in the area saw 226 patients who had overdosed in 2015 alone, and Chief Todd in Fargo spoke about 20 overdose-related deaths in his region alone. It’s clear communities need new, tangible resources - and fast. That’s why I gathered leaders in Bismarck in May to unveil my LifeBOAT Act, which would make sure our communities have new resources to build effective, community-wide infrastructures preventing and mitigating abuse. By putting a one-cent tax on every prescribed milligram of opioids, my bill would help provide the direly needed resources our state needs to stay protected. As a survivor of breast cancer, I don’t whisper about my recovery - and neither should those in our community struggling with opioid-related challenges. I’ll keep pushing to bring opioid abuse out of the shadows, and to pass my legislation to make sure all of our communities get the resources they need to fight this crisis and beat it together. 

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