In Little Falls opioid fight, teamwork is critical – St. Cloud Times

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CVS announced it will limit all opioid prescriptions to a shorter timespan for customers taking the meds. NorthJersey.com

LITTLE FALLS — Addicts trying to get their lives on track can keep taking the medicine that combats their opioid addiction, even if they wind up serving time in the Morrison County Jail. 

Morrison County is about three weeks into a pilot program that allows inmates to take Suboxone behind bars if the medication is helping them stem an addiction. 

“By allowing Suboxone in our jail, hopefully we avoid relapse,” said Sheriff Shawn Larsen.

That pilot is a new part of a multi-faceted and nationally-celebrated program out of Little Falls to tackle addictions to prescription pain medications and heroin. Agencies there formed a prescription drug abuse task force. And the clinic has a Controlled Substance Care Team.

Doctors from CHI St. Gabriel’s Health shared their successes with federal officials from the House and Senate in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday. The Minnesota Legislature has also approved $1 million to help other communities tackle opioid abuse as Little Falls has.

Last year, 376 Minnesotans died of opioid overdoses, according to Minnesota Department of Health statistics. Ninety-one Americans die every day from opioid overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Little Falls team spurred a reduction in the number of pain pills in circulation and pain patients there. Before the program, pain was the number one reason people visited the emergency room, now it’s not even in the top 20 reasons for an ER visit. 

RELATED: Opioid overdoses still rising in Minnesota, but picture locally is mixed

St. Gabriel’s Dr. Kurt DeVine helped establish the program with a state grant in 2014. Dr. Heather Bell joined the program a year later. The two were in D.C. this week. Their medical team looks at pain patients, case by case, to determine if those patients are suitable for powerful pain medications.

The doctors explore other prescriptions for the patients and recreational drug use, then make recommendations to the patients’ primary care doctors. The team also connects patients with a social worker when needed. 

Other community members are involved as well, from the police department and the Morrison County Sheriff’s Office to local pharmacies. 

“I’m on the ground. I get to see the prescriptions being filled,” said Gary Sperl, general manager at Coborn’s Pharmacy in Little Falls. “You witness the ebb and flow of problems.”

Sperl has been in the community for 30-plus years and cooperated with police throughout that time, including the era of pseudoephedrine abuse, when Sudafed and other cold medications were readily purchased to support illegal methamphetamine production. 

Now the issue is with opioids. Sperl will talk with inmates about drug use in the Morrison County Jail. Pharmacists in the area also stopped filling prescriptions early, Sperl said, to reduce a flow of extra pills. They’re meant to last 30 days. 

Officers used to find people with pill bottles that didn’t belong to them, said Jason McDonald, an investigator in the Morrison County Sheriff’s Department. They’d be selling and snorting prescription pills. Those pill addicts eventually made their way to heroin, which is cheaper and easier to get, McDonald said.

“We’ve seen a decrease in the number of pills we’re able to purchase when we’re under cover,” he said. “We’re going to prevent creation of new addicts.”

Sperl has seen how destructive opioid addictions can be and how they damage relationships. Some people tangled up in addictions Sperl knew from when they were friends with his kids, he said. 

“You don’t want to see that,” he said. “We do this (the task force) to try to help. … We want to help people help themselves.” 

The Little Falls program has 30 patients taking Suboxone, Bell said. Twenty-one of them are functioning again with their families, at work or in their other regular activities, she said. 

Earlier this year the Legislature directed $1 million to set up opioid-abuse prevention programs. Little Falls could become the model for those new pilots.

“We need to push this type of progress out to surrounding communities,” investigator McDonald said.

Nora G. Hertel: 320-255-8746 and on Twitter @nghertel

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