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State partners with business to take on opioid epidemic

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Synthetic opioids like fentanyl accounted for almost half of opioid deaths
Synthetic opioids like fentanyl accounted for almost half of Minnesota's 401 opioid overdose deaths last year.
Joe Amon | The Denver Post/Getty Images via NPR

Updated: Wednesday, 7:57 a.m. | Posted: Tuesday, 3:19 p.m.

As the number of people dying of opioid overdoses continues to rise in Minnesota, the state has launched a website to help companies support employees who are struggling with opioid dependency.

The state Department of Health and the Minnesota Business Partnership collaborated on an employer toolkit that launched Tuesday. 

The toolkit suggests five actions employers can take to address the opioid overdose crisis, including reducing stigma, disposing of old medication and helping employees find treatment options. 

"Employers can be such positive agents for change," said health commissioner Jan Malcolm. "They can create supportive workplaces that help raise awareness about early signs and symptoms of a substance use disorder, and they can help connect employees and their families to treatment and recovery options." 

Malcolm said reducing stigma is critical because it "prevents people from seeking the treatment that they need."  

Apart from the health effects, Minnesota Business Partnership CEO Charlie Weaver said substance abuse leads to billions of dollars in lost productivity each year. 

"There's nothing more important to our employers than the health and wellness of our employees, especially at these times when there's a worker shortage in Minnesota," Weaver said. "Employers are desperate for workers, and we want to take care of those workers and help them when they need help."   

Weaver said the toolkit will be distributed throughout companies that are part of his organization. The toolkit isn't a "panacea," Weaver said, but addressing the opioid epidemic is going to require a lot of work, time and resources.

"The will is there, the determination is there to stick this out," Weaver said. "We can't afford not to address this problem in Minnesota." 

Creating a workforce that's friendly to people in recovery would be a powerful change for the broader culture, said Dr. Paul Goering, a vice president of mental health and addiction at Allina Health.

"The health care community has been working hard, and yet we're not making the impact that's needed, so we welcome the public-private partnership," Goering said.  

Kate Erickson, the Minnesota Department of Health's opioid overdose prevention director, said the toolkit has been in the works since last December. It's available to any employer in the state. 

"It's five really easy, simple steps," Erickson said. "It has plug-and-play types of actions, so tweets they can forward, fliers they can hang up, conversations they can have over a brown bag lunch." 

At least 401 people in Minnesota died of opioid overdoses last year. Synthetic opioids like fentanyl accounted for almost half of those deaths.

Correction (Sept. 19, 2018): An earlier version of this story misstated Charlie Weaver's name.