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Legislators fight back as overdose deaths rise

Minnesota drug overdose deaths have jumped four-fold since 2000, the Minnesota Health Department reported Friday as state legislators made attempts to slow the increase.

Opioid pain relievers such as Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet, morphine and codeine have become the drugs most associated with overdose deaths, the department said. Of 572 overdose deaths last year (compared to 129 in 2000), 216 were from opioids.

More than half of the deaths were associated with prescription drugs rather than illegal street drugs.

Ironically, the report came the same day that the state House approved a bill allowing pharmacies to take in unused prescription medicines, with opioids targeted, and to make it easier to dispense Naloxone, a drug that can reverse opioid effects.

The House on Friday unanimously approved legislation by Rep. Bob Barrett, R-Taylors Falls - following a similar Senate vote earlier this month - that allows pharmacies to take in unused medicines. They now are not allowed to, although many law enforcement agencies do accept unused medicines.

Barrett and Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, said that will take dangerous prescription drugs out of homes and keep them out of hands of addicts.

The bill does not require drug stores to take the medicines, but Barrett said he does have pharmacies' support.

Also in the bill is a provision to make it easier for pharmacies, with doctors' help, to provide Naloxone to counteract opioid overdoses. Barrett said that will especially help rural areas, where he said it is more difficult to find enough doctors to work with pharmacies.

The bill due up Monday comes from Baker, whose son died from an opioid overdose.

"I became a forced expert when my son became an addict," Baker said.

Baker said that addicts often go from doctor to doctor seeking opioid prescriptions, as well as buying the drugs on the street.

His legislation requires pharmacists and doctors to register with an online program that allows them to track prescriptions given to patients. That, Baker said, could alert medical professionals when someone is getting too many opioid prescriptions.

Stuart Williams, a Minnesota Board of Pharmacy member, said he has seen cases where a person would go to 100 to 200 doctors in an attempt to get drugs.

The bill, which senators overwhelmingly passed Tuesday, would not require doctors or pharmacists to check a patient's record before filling a prescription.

Baker said that just 35 percent of doctors have logged into the online drug tracker. "We think that number should be much, much higher."

Baker pleaded with doctors: "Will you please do the courtesy to make sure they really need it (a drug) and this is the right one for them?"

News of celebrities who die of opioid overdoses, like is suspected in singer Prince's death, brings attention to the issue. But Baker said he knows firsthand the pain the deaths can cause.

"It is the worst kind of news you can get," he said about his son.

Barrett said opioid prescription use has soared in recent years, and doctors may not be adequately trained on the subject.

In many cases, Baker said, doctors prescribe too many. "They just give you 30 pills, that is what they have always done."

The Health Department data backed up the lawmakers' efforts to fight opioids.

"With all the attention on this issue over the past several years, it's disappointing that we have not been more effective in slowing down this epidemic," Health Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger said.

Unintentional drug overdoses accounted for a large majority of the overdose deaths, the Health Department reported, but suicides related to drug use also increased.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.