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More needed in opioid fight, northern Minnesota panelists say

Duluth Fire Chief Dennis Edwards talks about his department’s work with people suffering from opioid overdoses during Tuesday’s City Hall public forum on the opioid epidemic. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service1 / 3
Greg Anderson, social service supervisor for St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services, talks at Tuesday’s forum. The county was second in the state in per capita opioid overdose deaths in 2016, down from first in 2015, Anderson said. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service2 / 3
Duluth Chief of Police Mike Tusken talks to Ida Rukavina and Kyle Olson, both of Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s staff, about the local impacts of the opioid epidemic during Tuesday’s public forum at City Hall on the problem. Next to Tusken is police Lt. Jeff Kazel, commander of the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service3 / 3

DULUTH, Minn.—After more than an hour listening to local experts discuss the challenge posed by opioid overdoses, Dan Saker had his say.

"My brother Bill recently died of a drug overdose here in Duluth," Saker told the experts, community members and staff members from Sen. Amy Klobuchar's office who hosted a forum at Duluth City Hall on Tuesday afternoon.

Saker paused, briefly, gathering his emotions. "It was a hard time listening to everyone because you guys are all talking about these programs, but honestly they're not working."

Saker, he explained later, is the brother of William Robert Saker, whose remains were found on Sept. 28 in a storm sewer along the Duluth Lakewalk. He had been reported missing on March 28 from his Duluth home.

A Duluth police spokesperson said Tuesday evening they have not yet received official autopsy results for that case.

Treatment in itself isn't enough, said Dan Saker, who described himself as an ex-addict.

"We need more programs to have these guys in halfway houses, three-quarters-of-the-way houses, getting them jobs, getting them places to live, treating them like they are important," he said.

The experts and staffers seated around a long table in the mayor's reception room and about 20 community members at the back of the room listened sympathetically. No one was arguing the point that what's being done doesn't seem to be enough.

St. Louis County was "only" second in the state in per capita opioid overdose deaths in 2016, said Greg Anderson, social service supervisor for St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services. That was better than a year earlier, when the county led the state.

"This is not the area we want to be No. 1 in," Duluth Mayor Emily Larson said earlier. "We can do better, and we should do better."

In actual numbers, the county's overdose deaths totaled 23 in 2015, and 21 in 2016, Anderson said.

But while overdose deaths are down slightly, "saves," are mounting, Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken said. Since the department first deployed the antidote Narcan to treat overdoses with its officers in April 2016, 45 lives have been saved, he said.

The problem, Tusken said, is there's no funding to keep the program going.

The kits cost $75 each, Duluth police Lt. Jeff Kazel, commander of the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force, explained later. Once used, they have to be replaced. If not used, they expire after two years.

"There's only 900,000 cops in America," Tusken said later. "That's a big number, but when you look at the scale of the problem, you'd think we could fund that so everyone has it."

Instead, Kazel said, funding goes only to the places where the crisis is at its most extreme, such as Ohio and West Virginia.

So to keep Narcan in officers' hands, Duluth police have had to turn to private sources, Tusken said. Notable among those is The River church in Duluth.

Claudia Spees, the church's secretary and bookkeeper, confirmed later that its members had contributed $1,500 last year and another $867 this year to help fund the police department's Narcan program.

"We put it in front of the congregation and took an offering," after hearing a presentation from the police, Spees said. The church includes a number of recovering addicts, she said, and wants to help people who are in trouble.

But funding for such a program shouldn't rest on the backs of local churches, Tusken said.

The original funding came through a Minnesota nonprofit, the Steve Rummler Hope Network, which was represented at Tuesday's forum by board member Janie Colford. Additional funding from that agency is "in the pike," Kazel said, but hasn't worked its way to St. Louis County yet.

"We've been looking for grants, state and federal, and we've struck out," Tusken said. "So hopefully if (Colford's) got a funding stream for us to get more, that's great."

Money was a recurring theme at Tuesday's forum. Klobuchar's team touted, among other things, legislation the senator helped bring through Congress that resulted in a $675,000 grant to combat the opioid epidemic in St. Louis County.

One panelist after another expressed gratitude, but suggested that fighting the problem is going to take much more.

Underscoring what Saker would say later, Larson said the city lacks safe places for recovering addicts to get back on their feet.

"But it takes intensive funding to make that happen," she said. "We need more money for treatment. ... I need you to know how transformative some of those critical investments are because we are literally leaving people in very dangerous situations."