SHOREWOOD — At the outset of an event centered on the opioid crisis, U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, DFL, asked attendees to raise their hands if they had been personally impacted by the epidemic.

Rows of hands went up across the audience.

“We’re here tonight, not because it’s getting better, but because it is truly getting worse,” he said. “We are here tonight to do something about it.”

A panel of opioid epidemic experts and community leaders shared what factors escalated the opioid epidemic, and what can be done to end it, the evening of April 22 at the Shorewood Community and Event Center.

Among the panel were staff from a sheriff’s office, a doctor working in addiction medicine and founders from two nonprofits. As the event wrapped up, audience members were trained on how to use naloxone — an emergency treatment for opioid overdoses — and were able to take their own kit home.

Doctor Charles Reznikoff, of Internal Medicine and Addiction Medicine at Hennepin Healthcare, said doctors are being squeezed into seeing more patients in less time, and that there is pressure to provide a quick fix to patients.

“We know this now and we will know even more in the future, that it was a really well-planned business model from pharmaceutical companies, and unfortunately some well-intentioned and some not well-intentioned regulators missed it, and there was a squeeze on docs’ time so they felt pressured to keep patients moving along,” he said. “And we had a couple wars, and we had an economic crisis, and we had a lot of social stress and social trauma was high. And all of those things together, it was kind of the perfect storm.”

He is a consistent witness to the fact that long-term recovery is possible, he said.

Experts at the event said the crisis is slamming the region with costs of child protection, emergency services, and additional medical examiners.

Twin Cities Orthopedics had been a leader by changing how they give prescriptions, Phillips said. The group lessened its opioid prescriptions by more than 60 percent, without reports of a difficulty in pain management among patients.

Some 40 percent of those who die of an overdose in Minnesota crossed paths with the Hennepin County Jail system within the last year they were alive, said Rob Allen, chief of staff at the Hennepin County Sheriff’s office.

“There’s an opportunity there we’re not going to miss,” he said.

The Hennepin County Jail is gradually becoming a treatment center, he said, in which every inmate is screened for opioid use disorder. Treatments, follow-ups, and community resources are available, even if the arrestee is in jail less than a day.

Allen said part of the difficulty in tackling the opioid epidemic is the lack of a geographical heart. Opioids can be made in basements, shipped in from outside the country, and found in the medicine cabinets of family and friends.

The Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office reported 478 pounds of medication was turned in on Drug Take Back Day on April 27.

Founders Colleen Ronnei, of Change the Outcome, and Lexi Reed Holtum, of the Steve Rummler Hope Network, spoke of the work their nonprofits are doing to raise awareness.

Ronnei created Change the Outcome after her son, a Minnetonka High School graduate, died of an overdose in 2016. Change the Outcome educates students across the state about the dangers of addiction. Peer-to-peer education is crucial in making the message sink in, she said.

Reed Holtum said she lost her fiance Steve to an overdose, and is in long-term recovery herself. She said naloxone training and understanding of the disease of addiction are important, as well as providing resources to people who become addicted.

“If you do not have the basic core things that you need in life, then you cannot think about recovery because you’re depressed. You’re just trying to survive,” she said.

Legislation and the strength of pharmaceutical lobbyists were discussed. As the panel wrapped up, experts encouraged audience members to get active politically and to have more conversations within their community.

Lara is a regional reporter for Southwest News Media.

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