Opioid addiction: It is not a moral failing; Willmar Town Hall begins community conversation

WILLMAR -- To successfully combat the growing opioid crisis, both locally as well as state and nationwide, the belief that addiction is just a bad choice needs to change.

Erica Dischino / TribuneCommunity members attended an Opioid Town Hall meeting Monday at WEAC in Willmar.
Erica Dischino / Tribune Community members attended an Opioid Town Hall meeting Monday at WEAC in Willmar.

WILLMAR - To successfully combat the growing opioid crisis, both locally as well as state and nationwide, the belief that addiction is just a bad choice needs to change.

That was one of many messages a panel of speakers at a town hall meeting about opioid abuse in Willmar Monday night shared with an audience of interested community members.

"It is really important that we get rid of these old stereotypes," said Dr. Kathryn Duevel, medical director for performance excellence for Carris Health. "It is not a moral failing, it is a chronic illness."

The meeting, held at the Willmar Education and Arts Center, was co-sponsored by the Kandiyohi County Drug Free Communities Coalition and the Dan Baker Foundation.

"This is what we want to call a community conversation about opioids and addiction," said Dave Baker, father of Dan Baker. Dan Baker died due to an opioid addiction and his parents started the foundation in his honor. "This is important to a lot of people in this community."


Part of the mission of the Dan Baker Foundation is to share the family's story and educate others about opioid abuse and addiction.

"We want to share with others what we wish we would have known," said Baker, who also represents the Willmar area in the Minnesota State House of Representatives.

Also on the panel, in addition to Baker and Duevel, were Robert Braness, a member of the CEE-VI Drug Task Force; Dr. Scott Abrams, ACMC Urgent Care physician; Marti Paulson, Project Turnabout Chief Operating Officer; and Tami Jo Lieberg, director of Kandiyohi County Community Corrections. Panel members passed on information about opioids and treatment and shared their own stories. They also answered questions from the audience.

There is a lot of confusion in the public about what opioids are and why people become addicted, Duevel said. Prescription opioids like morphine, oxycodone, fentanyl and vicodin, treat pain by diminishing the body's perception of pain. It can also alter moods and make the user feel high. They are all related to heroin, which some prescription abusers will turn to because the illegal drug is easier and cheaper to get.

Baker points to the FDA's approval of OxyContin as the start of the current crisis. When it was first approved in late 1994 drug manufacturers said it would be less addictive and more efficient in treating pain. Those claims were later found to be less than accurate.

"We have found out a lot of things since then. It has hurt a lot of people, crushed communities, broken families," Baker said.

Lieberg and Abrams, like Baker, have very personal stories about opioid addiction and the damage it can cause. Lieberg's son has sought treatment several times and Abrams himself is a recovering addict.

"I learned about addiction the hard way," Abrams said.


Lieberg's son began stealing from his parents to fund his addiction. Abrams said his addiction led to his life falling apart. Both discussed how important treatment and support is to getting help.

"We have to get rid of the stigma," Lieberg said. "It is very difficult to make it through."

For an addict to even begin treatment they have to go through detox, which for opioid abusers is a frightening proposition.

"Their entire body is ill," Paulson said. "It is about treating the entire person."

Opioid withdrawal, which can begin within hours of taking the last pill, can include muscle and bone pain, sleep problems, diarrhea and vomiting, cold flashes, uncontrollable leg movements and severe cravings. Duevel said some people who become addicted or dependent on opioids aren't doing it because of the high. They are trying to avoid the withdrawal symptoms.

"It is a fight against the constant withdrawal," Duevel said. "It is a pretty potent driver."

Today there are only 10 treatment centers in Minnesota which can accommodate opioid detox and withdrawal cases, and only one which specializes in opioid withdrawal. This lack of treatment options can be an important reason why addicts don't get help.

"If you don't have a place to go to withdraw, to help you get through it, you are not going anywhere," Paulson said.


Paulson said detox centers have been closing left and right, due to the lack of funding and harsh regulations. She also said there are no plans to build new treatment centers.

"It is a difficult and sad situation, especially rural Minnesota is going through it right now," Paulson said.

Baker said as a legislator he is committed to fighting for more funding for the opioid programs and treatment. Even in St. Paul the ongoing stigma is a challenge to overcome and lawmakers have to be told how important these programs are.

"It takes a community to talk to your legislators and senators to make sure they really know we have to be directing more there," Baker said.

Monday's town hall was the first of two being held in the area. The second is scheduled from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Monday at the Prairie Woods Elementary Cafetorium in New London. The same panel of speakers will be in attendance and the audience will be able to submit questions.

"We have a lot of people to talk to about this horrible disease. This is a conversation we have to have openly," Baker said.

Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email or direct 320-214-4373.

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