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Overdose Deaths In Native American Communities Skyrocket

Native Americans and Alaska Natives saw a fivefold increase in overdose deaths between 1999 and 2015, according to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The increase in that period was higher for Native Americans than any other group, jumping to roughly 22 deaths for every 100,000 people in metropolitan areas and nearly 20 for every 100,000 people in rural areas.

But the statistics, while staggering, may represent an undercount for Native Americans and Alaska Natives by as much as 35 percent, because death certificates often list them as belonging to another race, said Dr. Michael Toedt, the Indian Health Services' chief medical officer.

As a growing number of tribes file lawsuits against drug manufacturers and distributors, saying they misrepresented addiction risks, the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a hearing focused on the crisis.

Federal officials said the opioid epidemic is straining tribal resources.

“I have heard from tribes that there are not enough resources out there certainly any funding that congress can provide would be appreciated,” Toedt said.

Congress is scheduled to vote on a $1.4 trillion dollar budget later this week, and about $10 billion has been earmarked to tackle the opioid crisis nation-wide. Its unclear how much of that will be designated for tribes.

Christopher Jones, policy director of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, told the committee he’s more concerned about man power.

"We can have multiple billions of dollars that could be spent on treatment ... but if we don't have providers who can provide the care, whether you're in Indian county or not, you're not going to be able to get access to evidence-based care,” he said.

Officials highlighted the success of expanded telehealth services for remote communities, training law enforcement officers on overdose procedures and providing naloxone, an overdose reversal drug, to tribal first responders.

U.S. Attorney John Anderson, of New Mexico, said tribal leaders in a northern stretch of the state had called for solutions. One pueblo police chief described losing a brother and sister to overdoses, he said.

"The opioid epidemic knows no boundaries," he said.

In August, state and tribal officials will come together for a policy academy with the goal of developing develop specific and actionable plans to address opioid crisis  with available tribal, state and federal funds.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Claire Caulfield was a reporter and Morning Edition producer at KJZZ from 2015 to 2019.