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Minnesota opioid death, suicide rates rose in 2017. Now, state lawmakers want to do something about it

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota saw an increase in deaths stemming from preventable causes in 2017 state data show, and officials said that should fuel a push for change at the Capitol.

State officials reported higher rates of opioid-related deaths and suicide deaths in 2017 as compared to the year prior, the Minnesota Department of Health reported on Monday, March 18. The statistics are the most recent available.

The trend lines have steadily increased in both categories since 2000 and come after Minnesota doctors and law enforcement officers took steps to reduce the rates of addiction to opioid painkillers and to prevent opioid-overdose deaths using Naloxone.

At the root of the increases as well as alcohol-attributed deaths is pain, whether physical, emotional or otherwise, state health experts said. And while doctors, first responders, and communities have done more to prevent the deaths, there's still work to be done.

"We know that we're doing some really good things, but we just need to do more of it," Minnesota Department of Health Epidemiologist Melissa Heinen said.

Opioid painkiller prescriptions in the state decreased by 10 percent between 2016 and 2017. And more physicians joined the state's Prescription Monitoring Program, which lets them track a patient's painkiller prescription history across medical providers to prevent overprescribing.

Minnesota emergency rooms treated more patients experiencing opioid overdoses. Across the state, 2,037 patients were treated for and survived opioid overdoses in emergency departments in 2017.

American Indian people and people of color faced higher levels of mortality due to opioid overdose deaths as compared to white people, according to the reports. And the rate of mortality for overdose deaths for American Indian people was the worst in the nation in 2017.

The American Indian mortality rate increased from 64.6 per 100,000 residents in 2016 to 76.2 per 100,000 residents in 2017. The mortality rate among African American people increased from 24.0 per 100,000 residents to 27.6 per 100,000 residents. By contrast, drug overdose mortality rates increased from 11.7 to 12.1 per 100,000 white residents between 2016 and 2017.

Deaths related to alcohol declined slightly between 2016 and 2017 but also increased from rates reported over the past decade and a half.

Here is what the new data show:

  • Deaths from opioids were up 12 percent between 2016 and 2017, 422 people died of deaths attributed to opioids in 2017. That's almost seven times more than were reported in 2000.
  • And suicide deaths also increased between 2016 and 2017. In 2017, 783 Minnesotans were reported to have died by suicide as compared to 743 suicide deaths in 2016.

  • Alcohol-related deaths declined slightly over the same period from 641 in 2016 to 636 in 2017.

Minnesota lawmakers on Monday said the statistics outline an epidemic of substance addiction and abuse in Minnesota and highlight a need for more education and treatment options. And the Minnesota House of Representatives on Monday advanced House File 400 on a 94-34 vote. The bill would set a fee for opioid manufacturers to create an Opioid Addiction Advisory Council and fund education, treatment and child placement programs.

“Even though this crisis was started a while ago, once you prescribe these pills, the effect will last for years and years and years," bill author and Rep. Liz Olson, DFL-Duluth, said. "We have a ways to go before we really turn the tide on this issue."

Opponents said raising a registration fee for opioid manufacturers and distributors would lead to increased health care costs for Minnesotans as the companies would pass the expense to patients.

“This will raise the cost of health care,” Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, said. “We’re all going to pay for these increases.”

Previous legislation provided resources to combat the opioid crisis in Minnesota, but it wasn't enough, other legislators supporting the proposal said.

“There isn’t just one silver bullet to work on this epidemic,” state Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, said. “We’ve done a lot of other things around the peripheral but now it’s time to get this bill completed, signed and sent."

Rosen said she doesn't have "100-percent buy-in" from her caucus, which holds the majority in the Minnesota Senate, but said she was confident the proposal would pass in that chamber.

Gov. Tim Walz in his budget proposal has prioritized funding for suicide prevention programming, culturally-competent services for American Indian communities and additional dollars to screen for addiction and expand access to treatment as well as overdose-reversing medication. And the DFL governor has said he would sign the bill into law.