Minnesota county trying new strategies to prevent opioid abuse

An arrangement of pills known as Percocet
This Aug. 15, 2017, file photo shows an arrangement of pills of the opioid oxycodone-acetaminophen, also known as Percocet, in New York.
Patrick Sison | AP 2017

A northern Minnesota county is piloting new measures to combat the opioid epidemic.

The St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services Department has launched a new, tiered opioid abuse prevention project, with support from the Minnesota Department of Health. The project will focus on rural, northern St. Louis County and will take a three-pronged approach:

• partnering with clinics and health-care providers to bring opioid prescribers in line with current best practices, as recommended by the state.

• decreasing the supply of opioid medications circulating in the community by educating community members and promoting safe disposal of unused medications.

• stepping up preventative screening efforts by integrating the Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT) model into St. Louis County home visiting programs and other health-care programs.

St. Louis County health officials reported that the county has been implementing the SBIRT model for several years with positive results. The model includes a screening process used by health-care providers, which helps to determine the purpose and degree of a patient or client's opioid use.

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"The purpose is to establish, 'what is the use?' and to catch people early, to be able to get them on the road to recovery sooner than later," said Jana Blomberg, a St. Louis County county public health educator.

"It would be more so considered a partnership between whoever is doing the screening process and the client or patient," she added, emphasizing that treatment is not mandatory after screening. "It's really helping that person to assess what their use is and what their readiness to change is."

St. Louis County is joining Wright County in working with the state as testing sites for the new opioid abuse prevention efforts. St. Louis County has seen a spike in opioid overdose deaths in recent years.

"Heroin and opioid drug overdose deaths have increased 108 percent between 2011 and 2015," Blomberg said of the county. "10.5 percent of all heroin overdose deaths within the state of Minnesota happen within St. Louis County.

Blomberg said she's optimistic about the new effort.

"I think the difference is really tackling the issue from three different angles, and having that support from the Minnesota Department of Health and also the support from Healthy Northland (health improvement program) ... being able to use their guidance and resources and knowledge to help drive this pilot project to be successful," she said.