Drug overdose deaths continue to rise in Minnesota

The Minnesota Department of Health released numbers Friday showing another increase in overdose deaths last year.

The department said 572 people died in 2015 of all drug overdoses, up from 516 the year before.

More than half of those deaths were related to prescription opioid painkillers, and at least 114 deaths were caused by heroin, another form of opioid drug. The number of people dying of opioid overdoses has increased fivefold in the state over the last 15 years.

Federal and state lawmakers are scrambling to find ways to reduce the number of overdose deaths.

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Sen. Amy Klobuchar was in Plymouth, Minn., this morning with Office of National Drug Control Policy Director Michael Botticelli for a roundtable on the opioid epidemic. The two officials met with representatives from law enforcement, treatment centers and doctors.

A number of people at the table with them had also lost loved ones to overdose. Shelly Elkington's daughter, Casey Jo Schultz, died last August after a long struggle that started with prescription painkillers.

"Five hundred families are planning funerals for their children, like I did, each week," Elkington said. "And that doesn't need to happen."

Klobuchar traced the epidemic to the large number of painkillers prescribed by American doctors.

"This is not just in one city. This is not just in urban. It's not just in rural," Klobuchar said. "It's happening all across our country."

At the federal level, Klobuchar co-authored the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which passed the Senate in March. It would expand access to treatment, get the anti-overdose medication naloxone into the hands of first responders and help states strengthen prescription drug monitoring programs.

"The president's put a billion dollars in his budget, which would be a major injection of money into treatment and other things we need to do," Klobuchar said. "That would be resolved by the end of the year. But of course that's going to be a major difference."

The solutions to the overdose epidemic aren't simple, Botticelli said. But efforts to reduce overdoses need to be about more than putting people in prison.

"We have to squarely ensure that our law enforcement are focused on making sure that we are focusing on drug dealers, major traffickers and criminal organizations," Botticelli said. "But arresting people because of their addictive disorders is not only inhumane and costing us taxpayer money, and doesn't ultimately solve the problem."

Botticelli said efforts to reduce overdose deaths need to focus on treatment and expanding access to naloxone, but also on educational efforts to prevent opioid addiction before it takes root.

"We have to be pushing on all of these areas, not only reversing people's overdoses but making sure that they have appropriate access to treatment and that we're preventing it upstream from ever happening in the first place," he said.

The state Legislature is also considering bills over the next few days aimed at preventing opioid overdose deaths.

A bill to expand prescription pill takebacks across the state passed the House Friday. And legislation that would slightly tighten the state's prescription drug monitoring program will be on the House floor on Monday.

Shelly Elkington, whose daughter died last August, thanked the federal and state lawmakers for coming to the meeting, and for their efforts to reduce overdose deaths.

"This epidemic is man-made. And we need to own that as humans," Elkington said. "And we also need to fix it."