Opioid epidemic calls for Minnesota church’s attention

By Matthew Davis

On Oct. 25, 100 people gathered at Gichitwaa Kateri Parish in Minneapolis to discuss the opioid epidemic’s impact on the Native American community, which the parish serves, and beyond.

The town hall-style event, which included presentations on the crisis and a Q&A session, was co-sponsored by the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office’s #NOverdose campaign.

Gichitwaa Kateri held a similar event in 2015. Opioid-related overdose deaths have occurred among the parish’s people, said Shawn Phillips, the parish’s director and pastoral minister. And the parish has tried to respond.
Phillips sees Gichitwaa Kateri’s efforts through the lens of Pope Francis’ metaphor of the church as a “field hospital,” although he thinks of it as “the emergency room for the world.”

“We are supposed to be reaching out and trying to heal the brokenness of this world, whether that be through our Eucharist, or in solidarity with the poor or however we might be,” Phillips said. “It’s our call to build the kingdom of God, and according to the Book of Revelation, the kingdom won’t have this brokenness.”

Gichitwaa Kateri assists addicts and their families through prayer and its Medicine Wheel Alcoholics Anonymous group, which is open to narcotics addicts and their families. The parish also offers prayer and ceremony for those battling addiction.

Public health emergency

The opioid epidemic hasn’t been a stranger to any demographic in Minnesota or the United States, according to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. President Donald Trump declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency Oct. 26.

Bottles of opioid-based medication at a pharmacy. (CNS photo/Bryan Woolston, Reuters)

Opioids range from prescription painkillers such as oxycodone and fentanyl to heroin, a street drug. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, in 2016 there were 376 opioid-related deaths statewide, the highest number on record. Meanwhile, there were 2,074 nonfatal hospital-treated opioid overdoses.

In April, Minnesota’s Department of Human Services released a report outlining a “targeted response to the opioid crisis.” The state’s Department of Health also launched an online Opioid Dashboard “to serve as a one-stop shop” for sharing data, best practices and general information.

“Opioids are the great non-discriminator,” said Sheriff Richard Stanek of Hennepin County. “We have seen folks as young as 16 and as old as 98 die from opioid-related causes, from every neighborhood, in every city, and every socio-economic status. This crisis cuts across all demographics.”

In Hennepin County’s #NOverdose campaign, people are encouraged to get rid of unused medications with a drug deactivation pouch or at county medication drop boxes. Hennepin County has collected 107,201 pounds of medication since 2012 accoring to the campaign website.

The campaign also recommends that people ask their doctors to prescribe opioid alternatives, and it encourages people to learn more about the issue and to talk with their elected officials about “mandating a prescription monitoring program, and prohibiting financial incentives from pharmaceutical companies to prescribers.”

Father Marcus Milless, a chaplain at Hennepin County Medical Center in downtown Minneapolis since July, said he sees opioid addiction regularly among the people to whom he ministers.

“It’s like any other addiction; there’s a darkness that comes with it,” he said.

The sacraments can be helpful in a person’s recovery, especially anointing of the sick, he said.

“That sign is not only for the [overdosed] person, but for the family, that Jesus is walking with them, because often this is felt as a whole family,” Father Milless said.

National leaders in Little Falls

About 100 miles northwest of Minneapolis, a Catholic hospital in the Diocese of St. Cloud has become a national leader in developing best practices around opioid prescriptions and use.

Before the opioid epidemic took the national stage in 2015, an emergency room nurse at CHI St. Gabriel’s Hospital in Little Falls recognized a problem in 2014.

“She just had concerns and told me about the volume of patients coming into the emergency room requesting narcotics for pain,” said Kathy Lange, foundation director for CHI St. Gabriel’s Health, which includes the hospital.
Lange heeded the nurse’s concern and researched the issue. In running reports from an eight-month span, Lange said she found narcotic requests were the primary reason for patients’ emergency room visits. Further research through Morrison County’s Medical Assistance provider showed that 30 percent of patients on Medical Assistance had obtained between 8 and 20 opioid prescriptions per person over the past eight months, she said.

Meanwhile, opioid overdosing already had the attention of law enforcement in Morrison County, population 32,775, where Little Falls is the county seat.

St. Gabriel’s, part of Colorado-based Catholic Health Initiatives, partnered with local organizations to form the Morrison County Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention program with a $370,000 state innovation model grant in 2015. The program educates local communities on responding to the opioid epidemic.

With the initiative, St. Gabriel’s has designed a health care model to help patients addicted to opioids. The hospital has a controlled substance care team with a pharmacist, a social worker, nurse and physician to help an addicted patient recover. The team has helped 324 patients reduce opioid use, according to St. Gabriel’s. The team also connects patients with other social services programs for needs such as mental health care and food assistance.

“It’s not just a doctor, it’s not just law enforcement, [and] it’s not just social work. It’s all of us that work together,” said Dr. Heather Bell of St. Gabriel’s Family Medical Center. “It’s a multifaceted approach to helping the addicts. We also keep a really close eye on them. We also let them know that we understand that it’s going to be hard and that we understand that they might have struggles.”

Both Bell and Dr. Kurt Devine, who also practices in St. Gabriel’s family medicine clinic, have spoken to other hospitals and clinics about the program’s effectiveness. In September, they presented their program to the U.S. Congress. They hope to see other hospitals adopt similar models.

Devine said adequate funding and ignorance to the problem in their communities are the main barriers for hospitals in altering their care for addicts, but he believes that the opioid epidemic “exists in every community.”

“When we started [the program], we just had really no idea the depth of the problem in our county,” Devine said. “I think our police did, but I think we were pretty much blinded to how big a problem it really was.”

Matthew Davis is on the staff of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.


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