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Senators Heitkamp, Udall and Hoeven and NCAI Weigh In On Opioid Crisis In Indian Country

U.S. Senators Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) and Senator John Hoeven (R-ND) are three Senators addressing the ongoing opioid epidemic in Native communities.

Last week, U.S. Senator and vice chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Tom Udall (D-NM) and Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), led eight other senators in urging Senate leaders to fund tribal communities in assisting them to address a growing opioid epidemic in Native American communities.

The request by Udall and Heitkamp was in a letter to Senate Appropriations Committee leadership requesting a tribal set-aside within the $6 billion in opioid funding included in the recent budget cap deal.

In addition to the initiatives and statements by Udall and Heitkamp, the National Congress of American Indians has just released their latest detailed report from their policy research center titled: The Opioid Epidemic: Definitions, Data, Solutions, outlining the problems related to opioid abuse in American Indian / Alaskan Native (AI/AN) communities and potential solutions.

As outlined in the NCAI report, American Indian/Alaska Native data from the National Center for Health Statistics reveal that the opioid epidemic is increasing for Native Americans, including deaths from drug poisoning overall and deaths due to opioid analgesics other than heroin.

American Indians and Alaska Natives had the highest overdose death rates of any group in 2015 and the largest percentage change in the number of opioid-related deaths over time, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The National Congress of American Indians has just released their latest detailed report from their policy research center titled: 'The Opioid Epidemic: Definitions, Data, Solutions.'

The National Congress of American Indians has just released their latest detailed report from their policy research center titled: 'The Opioid Epidemic: Definitions, Data, Solutions.'

On Wednesday, U.S. Senator and chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs John Hoeven (R-ND), and Senator Tom Udall, vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, led a committee oversight hearing entitled “Opioids in Indian Country: Beyond the Crisis to Healing the Community” to explore the need for Congress to support and address the opioid and substance use crisis in Indian Country.

During the hearing, senators from both sides of the political spectrum, to include Hoeven, Udall and Heitkamp, weighed in on the troubling statistics of opioid abuse.

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Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND)

“On November 9, 2017, this committee held a roundtable on the opioid abuse epidemic in Indian Country," said Hoeven. "The roundtable highlighted how the opioid abuse epidemic is particularly complex in tribal communities given the lack of access to medical care, shortage of law enforcement and insufficient data on substance abuse”

“This hearing will build on that discussion and examine how Congress, the administration, tribes and tribal organizations can work together to combat the crisis and heal Indian communities.”

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“The facts of the opioid abuse epidemic are tragic. Our country has witnessed an 18-year increase in deaths from prescription opioid overdoses and a recent surge in illicit opioid overdoses.”

Senator Udall echoed similar sentiments made by Hoeven at the hearing.

“The substance abuse crisis has sent ripple effects through Native communities – straining already overtaxed tribal systems,” said Udall. “Tribal schools, housing departments, social services, law enforcement, and courts are all being asked to address the broader community disruptions caused by this public health emergency."

“Any successful response to the opioid and substance abuse crisis in Indian Country must be driven by tribes. And Congress must support Tribal efforts by holding federal agencies accountable and providing sufficient resources…. As members of the Indian Affairs Committee, we’re obligated to educate our Senate colleagues about what’s happening on this committee, so that Indian Country’s priorities -- and the voices of tribal leaders -- are heard beyond these four walls."

Also during the hearing, Senator Heitkamp stressed the need for more federal law enforcement agents on reservations to help improve the quality of criminal investigations and in preventing illegal narcotics trafficking.

“The opioid and methamphetamines epidemic on reservations has gone far beyond crisis-levels, and we are losing generations of daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, and grandparents to substance abuse. Treatment facilities in Native communities have been disproportionately overwhelmed, and tribal resources have been drained as federal officials have largely failed to grasp the scope of Indian Country’s mounting addiction challenges,” said Heitkamp.

“Additional targeted resources need to be deployed now to address the scourge of skyrocketing overdose deaths and high usage in Indian Country. That’s why we’re asking for funds specifically for tribes, so that those on the front lines can build a comprehensive law enforcement presence, while also supporting effective treatment and recovery efforts, like mental and behavioral health services for children. To mitigate the long-term impacts of addiction and trauma, reservations must be positioned on a path that promotes healing and strengthens the safety of their tribes,” she said.

In addition to the oversight hearing, Udall and Heitkamp joined four other senators in introducing the Native Behavioral Health Access Improvement Act. The bill would create a Special Behavioral Health Program to help Tribes with resources to address the mental health needs and substance use disorders in their communities. Modeled after the Special Diabetes Program for Indians, the program would allow Tribes to develop solutions that incorporate local, traditional and cultural practices into evidence-based prevention, treatment, and recovery programs.

Udall and Heitkamp also joined a group of 14 senators last month to introduce S. 2437, the Opioid Response Enhancement Act. This bill, which also reauthorizes a federal opioid grant program for states, would make Tribes eligible for the program first authorized by the 21st Century Cures Act in 2016.

Click here to see a live stream of last week’s hearing at the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs website, on challenges addressing opioid abuse in Indian Country.

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Follow Indian Country Today’s associate editor and senior correspondent, Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) on TwitterFollow @VinceSchilling