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Heitkamp hosts roundtable discussion on combating opioid abuse

From left to right: John Vastag, CEO of North Dakota Assistive, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Mark Schaefer, regional manager of North Dakota Community Medical Services participated in a roundtable discussion with Dickinson community members about combating opioid abuse in southwest North Dakota on Friday. (Sydney Mook / Forum News Service)

DICKINSON — Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., along with local leaders in law enforcement, health care and drug treatment, gathered at CHI St. Alexius in Dickinson on Friday morning to discuss the community's concerns and efforts to effectively combat the growing opioid abuse epidemic.

Heitkamp said it is important for communities to work together to get to the root of the issue in order to build

"There's a huge consequence for not dealing with this problem on the front end," Heitkamp said. "It's not just 'Let's treat the Band-Aid, treat the symptoms, treat the symptoms.' We've got to get to the root cause. We've got to build healthy communities."

Reed Reyman, president of CHI St. Alexius Health, said the Dickinson area has seen a 300 percent increase in opioid cases coming through their doors over the past three years or so. Since the oil boom three years ago, the hospital was getting about five opioid cases a month, that number has since doubled and only continues to increase, Reyman said.

An agent with the Southwest Narcotics Task Force said the area has seen a "huge influx" of heroin, fentanyl and carfentanyl over the past few years. The number of overdoses they've responded to has also increased, including two overdoses in the same house within 24 hours a couple of months ago. The agent noted that the price for methamphetamine is approximately a fourth of what it was three years ago.

"We can't jail our way out of this problem, but we also can't cut back on law enforcement services because once we do, the price goes down, it becomes more accessible and we have a bigger problem," Heitkamp said. "This isn't just about curbing demand, we've got to fight on the supply side as well."

Jenn Gonser, a mental health technician at Badlands Human Service Center, lost her 16-year-old son, Dylen, to an overdose in January 2016.

"He went to bed like any other child would on a Friday night and in the morning we found him," she said, holding back tears. "We got the autopsy report back and he had three different types of opiates, he had cocaine, benzos and marijuana in his system."

Gonser said she hopes she can help just one family or one child so they do not have to go through the same thing her family has gone through.

Heitkamp is a co-sponsor of a bill that would establish a one-cent fee on each milligram of active opioid ingredient in prescription pain pills. The money, which Heitkamp says would currently total more than $1 billion, would then go to a national fund to help treat the epidemic.

John Vastag, CEO of North Dakota Assistive and head of the Mayor's Blue Ribbon Council in Fargo, said while the federal and state government can help provide funding and legislation for programs, it is ultimately up to the communities themselves to get everyone involved to help with the problem.

"The reality is the implementation happens here in your communities," Vastag said. "... There's no one that knows the needs of your community better than you do and there's no one that knows the resources within your community better than your community does."

Kayleen Wardner, founder of Western Edge Ministries and Hope's Landing, while providing something like psychological services can help someone, it is important to know that there has to be more done. People convicted of drug-related crimes and addicts can fall into a cycle of getting out of prison, being unable to find a job or place to live, selling drugs in order to get by and then being arrested and being sent back to prison.

"We're recommending a nine-month stay at Hope's Landing," Wardner said. "We see ourselves as that place where the ladies can go after the 30-day treatment and from what we have seen and studied that 30-day treatment is just the very beginning. The addictive brain doesn't have time to do a lot of healing in that time."

She said at Hope's Landing the women are able to learn life and job skills that they did not have as an addict.

"We need the community to hire our ladies," Wardner said. "We have a safe place to live and a job means really hope for the future."

Sydney Mook

Sydney Mook has been covering higher education at the Grand Forks Herald since May 2018. She previously served as the multimedia editor and cops, courts and health reporter at the Dickinson Press from January 2016 to May 2018.  She graduated from the University of South Dakota with a bachelor's degree in journalism and political science in three and half years in December 2015. While at the USD, she worked for the campus newspaper, The Volante, as well as the television news show, Coyote News. She also interned at South Dakota Public Broadcasting and spent the summer before her senior year interning in Fort Knox for the ROTC Cadet Summer Training program. In her spare time, Sydney enjoys cheering on the New York Yankees and the Kentucky Wildcats, as well as playing golf. If you've got an idea for a video be sure to give her a call!

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