Helping Native Americans tackle the opioid epidemic - KTEN.com - No One Gets You Closer

Helping Native Americans tackle the opioid epidemic

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Rep. Markwayne Mullin introduced the TARA Act. (KTEN) Rep. Markwayne Mullin introduced the TARA Act. (KTEN)

Overdoses and deaths blamed on the nation's opioid epidemic continue to grow.  And one specific demographic group in Texoma is especially vulnerable: Native Americans.

"This thing can get a hold of you and hold on to you stronger than you want it to," said Bob Rhoden of Four Rivers Outreach, a Sherman-based organization that helps the victims of substance abuse.

President Donald Trump called America's opioid epidemic a "health emergency."

"Every day, 116 Americans die from an opioid-related overdose," the president said, describing a problem that stretches from coast to coast.

But how bad is the situation in Texoma?

"The Native American group ... they are hit harder than any other ethnic group in the United States right now," said U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-District 2).

Choctaw Nation chief pharmacist Clint Morrison acknowledged that this is a growing and alarming problem.

"Nationwide, compared to the general population, Native Americans are about three times more likely to suffer from an opioid addiction, and then almost twice as likely to die of an opioid overdose," he said.

Mullin said there is a need for tribal populations to recognize the magnitude of the problem. He sees a disconnect when meeting with constituents.

"I ask, 'How many people are affected? How many people in the rooms that aren't aware of someone that's going through it?' And for the last two years now, no one stands up," the congressman said. "It's affected everyone's family to some degree."

American Indians and Alaska natives have the highest opioid overdose rates in the country, higher than any other minority. A report by the Centers for Disease Control said rural areas as a whole saw a 325 percent increase in overdose deaths between 1999 and 2015, but the death rate for Native Americans living in rural areas jumped 519 percent over the same period.

Those alarming numbers prompted Rep. Mullin to introduce the Tribal Addiction and Recovery Act of 2018 -- the TARA Act.

"I have the largest Native American population in the country," he said. "In my district -- District 2 of Oklahoma -- I think I represent 19 different tribes."

The TARA Act would give those tribes direct access to federal grants, which provide resources for states to battle the opioid epidemic.

"The problem is, it didn't allow the tribes to access the same federal grants," Mullin explained. Currently, tribal nations are forced to petition the state for access to those grants.

Mullin said the TARA Act would let tribes allocate money wherever they see fit.

"I think the money would allow us to start programs and expand on programs that we currently have," Morrison said.

Mullin said he thinks the legislation, introduced on March 1, will move quickly through Congress. One of the next steps is to try and find the proper funding.

But as this bill is being considered, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter pledged that the state will continue to crack down on on individuals who break the law.

"There has to be continued vigilance on the part of law enforcement with regard to prescribers who are going to be reckless with their patients' lives," he said.

Mullin said the TARA Act would authorize an additional $25 million in grants, but it would be up to the Secretary of Health and Human Services to distribute funds from the grants.

The bill has been introduced in the House; it will need to pass through the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee before it goes to the full House floor for a vote.

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