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Congressman Denny Heck

Representing the 10th District of Washington

Cantwell Combats Opioids In Indian Country

Mar 23, 2018
In The News

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., along with nine of her Congressional colleagues sent a letter to the U.S Senate Appropriations Committee advocating for funding to combat the opioid crisis in Indian Country.

Last week, Cantwell who is a former chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, encouraged Senate leaders to prioritize direct funding for treatment facilities on reservations. In the letter, the senators highlighted the high number of opioid overdoses on Indian reservations and the need for $6 billion in federal funding for long-term treatment.

“The country is well aware of the impacts of the opioid epidemic on both rural and urban communities alike, but many are unaware of the disproportionate impact of the opioid epidemic on American Indians and Alaskan Natives,” The senators wrote. U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Wash., who represents the Nisqually Valley area in Washington, D.C., was one of the signees.

There were more than 63,600 total drug overdose deaths in 2016 equalling 174 drug overdose deaths per day, according to the Center for Disease Control. American Indians and Alaskan Natives (AIANs) had the highest rate of opioid overdose deaths compared to all other ethnicities and the largest percentage increase in the number of deaths over time, according to a 2015 study by the CDC.

The rate of substance abuse was 14.9 percent for American Indian or AIANs older than 12-years-old, nearly double the rate of whites, African Americans, Asians and Hispanics, according to the most recent study by the National Congress of American Indians. 

In a Nisqually Valley News interview with chairman of the Nisqually Indian Tribe Farron McCloud last month, he said one tribe in Alaska lost 23 of their members to opioid or other drug related overdose deaths following “Per Cap Day.” Per capita is a percentage of profits that an Indian reservation makes from their casinos and stores and then is given back to tribal members 18 years old and over.

McCloud attributed much of the substance abuse problem stemmed from their ancestors who turned to drugs and alcohol following hundreds of years of mistreatment. Generation after generation passed down the Band-Aid. He said the “vicious cycle ends now.”

“Those in Indian Country face historically low access to quality healthcare, including behavioral health services, which could aid in the prevention, treatment, and recover of opioid abuse,” the senators wrote. “Tribal communities in rural areas often do not have access to substance use disorder treatment and prevention programs, and need treatment to have access, and that means investing in programs that work to stop the cycle of addiction.”

The Nisqually Indian Tribe recently made improvements to the “Recovery Cafe,” an outpatient treatment program run by Chemical Dependency Professional Program Manager Kelly Knittle. The program hands out packets with Narcan to prevent overdose deaths, similar to House Bill 2390 which mandates high schools and college dorms have Narcan on scene.

The tribe also has a vision to renovate the old Nisqually Jail into a homeless shelter for tribal members and improve upon the 16 cabins used for temporary housing at Brighton Creek near McKenna. 

Healthcare facilities in tribal communities are often forced to reduce access to medical services due to a nearly 20 percent vacancy rate for physicians, nurses and other health providers for Indian Health Services.

The impact of the opioid crisis extends beyond the addicted individual,” the senators wrote. “Many tribes have dedicated their own resources to improve access to treatment and recovery services for their members, but they continue to struggle to find further resources to address the secondary impacts of addiction in their communities.”

Cantwell recently introduced two bills known as the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) and joined a bipartisan group of colleagues to introduce CARA 2.0.

CARA tightens regulations for opioid manufacturers and punishes opioid manufacturers such as Purdue Pharma who failed to report suspicious drug orders. Purdue Pharma is also facing a lawsuit by Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

The lawsuit includes a Yelm physician who prescribed 6,300 prescriptions of Oxycontin, Brutans and Hysingla. The name of the physician is still sealed because the lawsuit is still active.

CARA 2.0 calls for an increase in funding for programs providing opioid education, treatment, and recovery.

“Allocating funding directly to tribes to address opioid and other substance use challenges is a step forward in fulfilling the federal government’s trust and treaty responsibilities,” the senators wrote.