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Ex-opioid addict: Doctors only want to prescribe 'pills, pills, pills, pills'

Minnesota state Sen. Julie Rosen of Vernon Center and Rep. Dave Baker of Willmar talk about their legislation to fight opioid addiction on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. Don Davis / Forum News Service1 / 8
Minnesota state Rep. Dave Baker of Willmar talks about their legislation to fight opioid addiction on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. Don Davis / Forum News Service2 / 8
Cindy Woldstad of St. Paul Park, Minn., lets the tears flow Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017, during an anti-opioids rally in the Minnesota Capitol. A speaker thanked her for speaking up about a seven-year painkiller addiction. Don Davis / Forum News Service3 / 8
Minnesota state Sen. Dan Schoen of St. Paul Park tells reporters Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017, that being addicted to opioid pain medicine is a disease. Don Davis / Forum News Service4 / 8
Cindy Woldstad watches as politicians, doctors and others talk Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017, about legislation fighting opioid addiction. She said she was addicted seven years. Maureen McMullen / Forum News Service5 / 8
Cindy Woldstad tells about 50 people in the Minnesota Capitol Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017, about her seven-year struggle to get off opioids. Don Davis / Forum News Service6 / 8
Shelly Elkington of Montevideo, Minn., tells reporters Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017, about her support of anti-opioid legislation after she lost a child to addiction. Maureen McMullen / Forum News Service7 / 8
Drs. Kurt Devine and Heather Bell of CHI St. Gabriel's Health in Little Falls talk to an anti-opioids rally Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017, at the Minnesota Capitol. Don Davis / Forum News Service8 / 8

ST. PAUL — Cindy Woldstad lived in pain, then became hooked on opioid painkillers.

While being treated in Hibbing, doctors only wanted to give her "pills, pills, pills, pills," she told a Minnesota House committee Tuesday during a day in which fighting opioid addiction was in the Minnesota Capitol spotlight.

She did not want to leave bed, and certainly did not want her grandchild to see her in pain and know of her addiction. "I lived in bed ... because I was so drugged up from these pills."

However, Wolstad said, she wanted more of a life.

"I really wanted to watch my grandchildren grow up," she said. "I wanted my life back."

Achieving that goal was not easy.

"As a patient, it is so hard to find doctors ... who are willing to take you off pain medicine," said Woldstad, who unsuccessfully tried to get off the medicine herself.

She moved from Hibbing to St. Paul Park and found Dr. Lizbet Ronning in Hastings, who helped get her off opioid painkillers. Ronning got Wolstad gradually weaned off opioids and prescribed recovery medicines.

"The last two months, I feel human again," she said, after seven years of taking painkillers.

Woldstad's tear-filled testimony and stories of deaths blamed on opioid addiction illustrated the concern prompting a series of bills that on Tuesday began their trips through legislative committees.

To reduce the availability of opioids, narcotic painkillers that can addict their users, one bill forbids pharmacists filling opioid prescriptions more than 30 days old.

Another bill would require doctors in many cases to check whether a patient already has had an opioid prescription before another is written. That legislation is designed to prevent "doctor shopping" by people who try to get multiple prescriptions for addictive painkillers.

One measure requires information about addiction and abuse be distributed when opioids are prescribed.

One of the most controversial measures may be one that would add a fee to opioid medicine, with up to $22 million a year in proceeds used to help combat addiction.

Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, said his bills and others will need a "heavy lift" to pass. The new fee, especially, goes against the feeling of Republicans who control the House and Senate; they generally oppose new fees and taxes.

"I am visiting with my colleagues every day on this issue," said Baker, who lost a son to opioid addiction six years ago.

Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, promised to deal with the opioid issue, but added: "We cannot do this without some funding. ... We are continuing to educate our colleagues.

Baker offered a series of bills in a committee hearing first thing Tuesday, followed by a news conference with dozens of people involved in the opioid issue, with an anti-opioid rally wrapping up the day.

Several people speaking at opioid day at the Legislature said opioid addiction is a disease, not a crime.

Sen. Dan Schoen, D-St. Paul Park, a police officer, agreed. "It is not morally wrong to be sick. ... We don't jail you for cancer, so let's not lean that way for addiction."

Many who become addicted obtain opioid medicines from others, often by stealing them. Others get them by doctor shopping.

But there also are concerns that doctors simply prescribe too many opioids.

Dr. Kurt Devine said CHI St. Gabriel's Family Medical Center where he works in Little Falls is taking steps to cut opioid use.

"Our pills were ending up in the wrong places, at sites of deaths ... " Devine said. "Unless you put less pills on the street, you are going to have a problem."

The clinic established a team to review opioid prescriptions to its patients. Up to 600 patients were on strong painkillers, he said, but in the past year 126 patients have stopped the use. He said that means nearly 100,000 fewer pills are coming out of the clinic since the team formed.

"We have changed the physician culture," Devine said.

However, he added, one community cannot fix the problem by itself. "If Little Falls is the place they cannot get their medicine from, they are going to the next town."

Dr. Chris Johnson, a Twin Cities emergency room doctor, said he cannot make it through a shift without dealing with at least one opioid problem.

"Make no mistake, we are in crisis," he said, blaming drug makers. "This crisis was not an accident, this was engineered."

Shelly Elkington of Montevideo said legislation being considered "actually will save lives."

She lost her daughter, Casey Jo, to opioid addiction.

But while she supports state legislation, "we can't legislate this all out," she said.

What is needed, she added, is to give "communities the opportunity to create their own solutions."

Elkington said the state needs to provide support and money for communities to take action because not all situations are the same. "The needs in Red Lake are different than what is happening in Hennepin County."

Opioid facts

• Prescription painkiller overdoses nationally have more than quadrupled in the past 20 years, killing 22,000 in 2015 alone.

• 33,091 people died from overdoses involving all opioids, including heroin, in 2015. That is roughly 1 person every 15 minutes.

• People in the U.S. consume opioid pain relievers at a greater rate than any other nation — twice as much per capita as the second ranking nation, Canada.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.