PORT ANGELES — U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell is hammering out legislation that would arm health officials and first responders in the fight against the opioid crisis, a North Olympic Peninsula panel heard Saturday.
Cantwell, D-Mountlake Terrace, met with law enforcement, public health and other Clallam County officials to brainstorm ways to stem what she described as an “unbelievable epidemic in our country.”
“We’ve been around the state to Longview, Spokane, Seattle, Bremerton — today here — to hear ideas about how the communities are dealing with this problem and to put together comprehensive legislation,” Cantwell said in a 94-minute panel discussion at the North Olympic Healthcare Network clinic in Port Angeles.
Last month, Cantwell and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., introduced a bill to hold drug makers accountable for false advertising and negligent distribution practices that have fueled the opioid epidemic.
The Comprehensive Addiction Reform, Education and Safety, or CARES, Act raises penalties on manufacturers that fail to monitor and report suspicious distribution of painkillers from $10,000 to $100,000 and doubles the maximum fine to $500,000.
It also provides funding for law enforcement to investigate heroin dealers.
Cantwell and five Senate colleagues are now working on a “comprehensive approach” to the opioid crisis that would add funding for treatment, prevention, education and awareness, she said.
More than 10,000 have died from opioid overdoses in the state in the last 15 years, Cantwell said. National opioid deaths were up 28 percent in 2016, she added.
“This kind of acceleration is something that we just can’t tolerate,” Cantwell said.
Cantwell was told that the Clallam County had the state’s highest opioid-related death rate at 16.5 per 100,000 on a rolling average from 2012 to 2016. Mason County had the state’s second-highest opioid death rate at 14.7 per 100,000, state health officials have said.
Jefferson County’s opioid-related death rate was 10.3 per 100,000 during the same period, ranking No. 10 among the 39 counties of the state.
Dr. Christopher Frank, Clallam County health officer, attributed the county’s high death rate to a historically large number of prescriptions written.
“It needs to involve a pretty comprehensive, multi-pronged approach to get things fixed, and the first thing really is around improving prescribing practices by physicians,” said Frank, who chairs the Clallam, Jefferson and Kitsap County opioid response committee.
Clallam County and the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe are among the governmental entities that have sued manufacturers and wholesalers of opioid-based prescription drugs to recover the costs of fighting the opioid epidemic.
Port Angeles Police Chief Brian Smith and Fire Chief Ken Dubuc discussed the ways that opioids have affected their departments.
“From a first responder perspective, the scope of our problem is massive,” Smith said.
“It’s really big, and we see it everywhere. All of our property crime in Clallam County — not like some of it, not like most of it — all of it is addiction or opioid-use disorder.”
Other speakers at the roundtable included Stevens Middle School teacher Angie Gooding, founder and former director of Port Angeles Citizens Action Network; Dr. Michael Maxwell and Dr. Linsey Monaghan of the North Olympic Healthcare Network; and Brent Simcosky, director of health services for the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe.
Two other speakers shared personal stories of their opioid addictions and the successes and failures of their recoveries.
The discussion was moderated by Clallam County Commissioner Mark Ozias.
“Clearly, this is a crisis that needs to be addressed from every facet,” Ozias said.
Several speakers discussed the county’s growing treatment capacity for opioids and the integration of services for addicts.
“It’s something that I think a lot of people at the table are proud of, our community support,” Frank said.
“We have more than 20 providers who prescribe (suboxone) in the county. When I talk to other counties that are much larger, they’re very envious.”
Suboxone is a drug that fulfills the physical craving for opioids but does not produce the same high.
After the discussion, Cantwell described the meeting as “very helpful and informative.”
“We will let you know about the movement of this particular legislation (CARES) and the larger comprehensive legislation that we’re working on as well that covers all aspects,” she told the group.
Cantwell was scheduled to meet with Mason County officials in Shelton later Saturday.
Cantwell was elected to the Senate in 2000. She is the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. She serves on the Commerce, Science and Transportation, Finance, Indian Affairs and Small Business and Entrepreneurship committees.
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at [email protected].