An hourlong roundtable discussion Wednesday on the opioid crisis yielded insights and lively expert discussion in Duluth — then made news for a clash between political campaigns trying to own the issue in the race for the open seat in the 8th Congressional District.
Republican Pete Stauber called together the partisan discussion at the Clear Path Clinic in East Hillside — coincidentally, on the same day the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said one person dies of a drug overdose every 8 minutes in the U.S., and that Minnesota overdose deaths were climbing to an estimated 715 in 2018. Opioids, including heroin and prescription painkillers, contributed to roughly two-thirds of those deaths.
"This isn't flyover country; these are people we're dealing with," Stauber said at the roundtable, where he served as moderator.
Democratic-Farmer-Labor candidate Joe Radinovich wondered how Stauber could credibly address the opioid issue by supporting a status quo U.S. system of privately run health care.
"How can Pete Stauber be trusted to find a solution to this crisis when he's already accepted substantial contributions from the same industry responsible for this mess?" Radinovich asked in an written response to the News Tribune. Radinovich was not invited to the roundtable, but has said repeatedly he favors a conversion to universal health care, a government-backed option he prefers for the way it reduces costs by removing middlemen. Radinovich called on Stauber to return financial contributions from pharmaceutical and insurance industry donors.
Stauber referred to his opponent's challenge as "political talk that doesn't even deserve a response," before addressing it more frontally by saying, "I was on the county board that voted to sue (pharmacy companies) because they never allowed their addictive properties (of painkillers) to be (made) public."
A fact check shows that in 2017 Stauber joined with other St. Louis County commissioners to unanimously approve a resolution allowing the county attorney to sign onto a lawsuit which would recoup government costs related to the addiction crisis from multiple distributors and manufacturers of opioid-based pain medications.
A search on the Federal Election Commission website of contributions to Stauber's Congressional campaign also showed several donations in the neighborhood of $1,000 each from insurance companies and at least one pharmaceutical company.
Stauber brought to the roundtable Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., author of successful House legislation now being weighed in the Senate that features potential remedies to the opioid crisis.
Walden was the fourth national politician to appear with Stauber in the Twin Ports this year, joining President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, who heard a local roundtable on immigration and port security.
Stauber chose Clear Path to play host because of its leadership in the addiction and treatment realm as well as its six-bed opioid detox center — a new and specialized program praised for being effective at reaching addicts in the right moment.
A retired Duluth police lieutenant, Stauber said he would focus on giving added attention to solutions coming from the front lines, including locally a 75-member Opioid Abuse Response Strategies work group which features experts in law enforcement, human services, medicine and addiction treatment working together.
"I would love to see the resources given to these grassroots people to collaboratively work to solve (the opioid crisis), because there's not a silver bullet to get this done," Stauber said.
The discussion hit the ground running with Walden asking Duluth police Lt. Jeff Kazel, commander of the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force, if officers carry the fast-acting opioid overdose antidote Narcan.
"We do," Kazel said. "We have over 57 saves just in Duluth — that's in a year and a half since we started carrying it."
The roundtable featured several ideas the experts said were in search of additional federal funding, including:
• Carry-around Narcan for patients in treatment or seeking help — just as an asthmatic would carry a rescue inhaler, explained Essentia Health's Dr. Elisabeth Bilden, an Emergency Medicine and Toxicology specialist. "Patients die before they get to the hospital," Bilden said.
• More seamless, first-door policies that would reduce the runaround faced by some addicts by having them get connected to detox and treatment no matter where they first show up — including hospitals, law enforcement centers and more.
• More nurses and staffing to keep methadone clinics such as Clear Path open 24/7 versus the more selective morning hours of today.
• A reduction in the time-consuming prior authorization process required by insurance companies before some treatment options can be employed.
"When a person who's addicted wants help, that door has got to be open," Stauber said, crediting the previous thoughts of Dr. Faris Keeling, chief medical officer for the Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment. "It can't be open nine hours later or nine weeks or nine days. That door should be open right there."
In his last words on the topic, Radinovich said, "The pharmaceutical industry is filling the coffers of candidates like Stauber as they work to kill common-sense efforts to address this problem." Radinovich called the opioid situation "dire" and one requiring special interest money be removed from the equation.