Minnesota lawmakers launch overdose death prevention legislation

Shelly Elkington of Montevideo, Minn., blames opioid addiction for the events that led to her daughter's death two years ago. She's since become an active campaigner for more regulations of prescription opioid painkillers.

"Since the day I lost Casey, the very day, I laid that at the foot of the pharmaceutical companies. She also had a very well-intended doctor that was there to provide her with medication, because she was sick," Elkington said. "That's what they were supposed to do: to help her. To watch her actually live with this addiction was almost as hard as losing her.

Elkington's not alone in her loss. More than 30,000 Americans are now killed by opioid overdoses each year.

Rep. Dave Baker's son Dan died of an opioid overdose six years ago. Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, lost her daughter Ariel a decade ago.

These two lawmakers and other allies at the Capitol are spearheading a new legislative effort to combat the opioid overdose epidemic.

Baker said the legislation is an effort to get at some of the roots of the rising death toll.

"There's not a single silver bullet that's going to fix it all. If there was, we'd have fixed it by now," said Baker, R-Willmar. "A lot of families have been busted up, and a lot of people who've been struggling with addiction for a long time, have been suffering for a long time."

They're calling the package of bills the "opioid reform act." The act includes five different bills aimed at different part of the opioid epidemic, some of which were introduced in hearings this Tuesday.

A major bill in the package would require prescribers to actually check the state's prescription monitoring system when prescribing opioids. State law currently makes using the system voluntary for doctors and dentists.

Dr. Chris Johnson, an emergency physician in the Twin Cities, said practices in the medical system helped create the opioid epidemic. Studies have shown that about 80 percent of heroin users started with prescription painkillers.

"I heard that pain was the fifth vital sign, and these medicines weren't addictive, and so we were pushing these and exposing the population at rates never seen before," Johnson said. "And the consequence is what we're all seeing here today. Dramatically increased rates of addiction and death, and lives destroyed."

Another bill would increase the licensing fee for drug companies by 1 cent per morphine milligram for opioid painkillers.

Lexi Reed Holtum, executive director of the Steve Rummler Hope Foundation, said that would raise about $22 million for education, overdose prevention and treatment options in the state.

"There is no reason why we should continue to treat this as a moral failing, we can create solutions, people do not have to die," she said. "We need prescriber education, overdose prevention and a continuum of care. And families and drug courts, and supports to all of our systems."

Other bills in the package include legislation prohibiting pharmacists from filling opioid prescriptions that were issued more than 30 days ago. And requiring pharmacists to provide patients with opioid prescriptions information about addiction and abuse.

The raft of bills follows a comprehensive report and educational campaign on the opioid epidemic by state Attorney General Lori Swanson.

The Hennepin County Sheriff's Office has also launched an anti-overdose campaign, citing a double-digit increase in the number of people who killed by opioid overdoses in the state's largest county last year.

Editor's note (Feb. 24, 2017): The story has been updated to clarify that Shelly Elkington's daughter Casey did not die explicitly of an opioid overdose.

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