There’s an alarming leadership void in Washington, D.C., when it comes to combating opioid abuse. Thankfully, Minnesota isn’t similarly afflicted — a reality made clear recently as Gov. Mark Dayton and the state’s medical community stepped forward with practical strategies to help those addicted to these powerful, potentially deadly prescription painkillers.
On Wednesday, Dayton announced a timely plan to boost prevention and treatment in the state. The specifics hew to a sensible framework issued last fall by a state work group whose members included top doctors as well as legislators who have lost children to these drugs. In 2016, 395 Minnesotans died after overdosing on opioids, which are legal but too often abused or sold illegally.
At the core of the state task force’s recommendations was a so-called “penny a pill” tax, with proceeds going to medical care, public education and law enforcement. Dayton quite reasonably agreed that additional resources are needed for prevention and treatment, and he’s pushing for a penny tax on each milligram of a pill’s active ingredient to raise about $20 million annually.
State Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, who lost her daughter to a drug overdose, has pointed out another reason to support this: It will ensure that the drug companies that profited from these drugs help shoulder full financial responsibility for the damage wreaked on families and communities. Taxpayers and consumers alone shouldn’t have to bear this burden.
Not surprisingly, that logic eluded anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist. The head of the D.C.-based Americans for Tax Reform has already issued an edict to state legislators against the penny tax. Minnesotans ought to heed Eaton, a grieving mother who is one of our own, instead of this attention-seeking gadfly.
Two respected members of Minnesota’s medical community also merit praise for leaping into action while the Trump administration drags its feet in filling key drug policy posts — or worse, installs political operatives. This month, Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) and UCare, a Minnesota health plan, announced an innovative partnership. Among its chief aims: treating opioid addicts sooner with anti-addiction medication and helping patients more reliably connect with follow-up treatment.
This effort, funded by $400,000 in grant dollars from UCare, also seeks to strengthen long-term support for addicts. What’s innovative is its focus on the emergency room at HCMC. Drug and alcohol counselors will be “embedded” there, assessing UCare members for addiction and, if necessary, beginning treatment right there with a drug reducing opioid cravings.
This emergency-room approach has been pioneered by Yale University researchers, with promising results. “Patients addicted to opioids often seek care in the emergency department (ED). They are more likely to receive addiction treatment, and reduce opioid use long-term, if they are started on medication to reduce cravings in the ED,” according to a Yale account of the work.
It makes sense that UCare, which has 113,712 state health program members in Hennepin County, is collaborating with HCMC’s busy emergency room on this promising model. Other state health care plans should follow UCare’s lead. Nonprofits and rural development agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, should consider backing similar efforts in rural hospitals.
“We’re not waiting for politicians to work through the issues. We are working on good policy right now,’’ said Ghita Worcester, a UCare senior vice president and chief marketing officer.
The compassionate initiatives rolled out by Dayton, UCare and HCMC will help struggling families and communities. This good work puts Minnesota right where it should be: at the forefront of finding health care solutions.