Tester Meets With Law Enforcement, Health Care Providers to Discuss Drug Epidemic

Senator touts efforts to secure money for addiction treatment and prevention at roundtable in Kalispell

By Justin Franz
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester. Beacon File Photo

An ongoing drug epidemic in Montana is putting pressure on already stressed systems, including local health care providers, treatment providers and law enforcement.

That was the message local officials shared with U.S. Democratic Sen. Jon Tester during a roundtable discussion about opioid addiction at Flathead County Agency on Aging in Kalispell on Sept. 20. Along with Tester were representatives from the Northwest Montana Drug Task Force, Kalispell Regional Healthcare, Flathead County District Court, the Montana Department of Child and Family Services and the Alliance for a Drug Free Flathead.

Mark Mulcahy, commander of the Northwest Montana Drug Task Force, said local law enforcement has confiscated or purchased about 10 pounds of methamphetamine so far this year. That amount is down from 2017, when the task force took in 42 pounds total of methamphetamine, but Mulcahy said drug addiction is still a major issue in the area and simply arresting people is not an effective solution.

“You can’t arrest your way out of the problem,” he said. “You have to attack this problem from multiple directions.”

But panelists said there are few treatment options locally for people struggling with addiction.

The impacts of drug addiction have been felt at the hospital, where until recently the number of infants born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, a condition that occurs when a newborn is exposed to addictive illegal or prescription drugs while in the mother’s womb, was drastically higher than the national average.

Between 2010 and 2014, there was a 400 percent increase at KRH in neonatal intensive care unit admissions, mostly due to drugs. Last year, there were about two-dozen infants born at KRH with neonatal abstinence syndrome. Nationally, about six out of every 1,000 infants are born with neonatal abstinence syndrome.

This year, KRH has started a new program that helps expectant or new mothers who struggle with addiction connect with social workers and parenting classes. Every time a mother attends a parenting class, she gets a voucher for baby supplies. Families can participate until their child is 2 years old. The social workers also help the mothers get addiction counseling to stay clean. Since the program began, the hospital has seen a sharp drop in the number of infants brought to the neonatal intensive care unit.

Amber Norbeck is a pediatric pharmacist at KRH and a member of the Alliance for a Drug Free Flathead. She said she has seen numerous women who are struggling with addiction also deal with unplanned pregnancies. One solution she offered during the meeting with Tester was providing free or low-cost, long-acting reversible contraception (LARC) to low-income woman.

A long-acting reversible contraception program in Colorado helped that state see a drop in unplanned pregnancies and abortions, according to LARC4CO, a coalition of organizations supporting the program. Norbeck said by offering LARC implants — essentially a form of birth control that can be inserted in the arm and last for up to three years — Colorado was able to reduce its public-assistance costs by $70 million over five years. Norbeck said it also empowered women to make health care choices that were right for them.

Tester said he appreciated everyone for bringing ideas to the table and noted that the federal government needs to do more to address addiction. Tester recently helped secure $1.5 billion in federal funds to help states deal with substance abuse by reauthorizing the State Targeted Response to the Opioid Crisis Grant Program through 2021. Tester also recently announced that 14 counties in Montana would receive $1.5 million in grants as part of the Department of Homeland Security’s Operation Stonegarden Progam. Among the communities receiving funds are Flathead, Lake, Lincoln, Mineral, and Glacier counties and the Blackfeet Nation.