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Legislature plans to hold hearings on methadone treatment

By Brandon Stahl, Forum Communications

DULUTH — A hearing in St. Paul has been tentatively set for Dec. 6 for members of Minnesota’s House and Senate to gather information on whether methadone treatment needs tighter regulation in the state.

The hearing will come after two Carlton County residents were killed by a driver who was allegedly high on methadone and after concerns about the use of methadone as a treatment for drug addiction were highlighted in a Duluth News Tribune series.

“We’re looking for information on the misuse of methadone by people taking it,” said Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, who will co-chair the hearing as the ranking member of the House’s Health and Human Services Committee. “Certainly not everybody is abusing it, but we need to find out if there’s something we can do about the ones who are.”

Huntley said that after the December hearing, committee members will decide if new legislation on methadone treatment is needed and, if necessary, will present it to the Legislature at the start of the session in January.

“We need to know if there are things that should change and how we can do that,” Huntley said. “It appears that regulations are too loose for people who abuse the system.”

Among the News Tribune’s findings, published in a series that began running in mid-September:

Since 2001, 392 people have died from methadone overdoses in the state (though some of those deaths are from people who took the pill form of the drug, which is used to treat pain).

Use of methadone treatment has increased 60 percent since 2007.

Some methadone patients sell their prescribed doses on the streets.

Five percent of patients successfully complete methadone treatment in Minnesota.

The reason for the low completion rates, methadone proponents say, is that methadone treatment should be acceptable for a patient’s entire life.

Huntley said he wants legislators to get a better understanding of why some methadone supporters say treatment can be used for life while others say the best treatment for opiate addiction is abstinence only.

“A lot of my understanding about that comes from (the News Tribune’s) articles,” Huntley said.

Huntley said he’ll ask numerous experts and administrators to testify who were quoted in the News Tribune series, including the chief medical officer of Hazelden Treatment Center, which provides abstinence-only treatment for opiate addiction and claims a 53 completion rate; administrators for the Minnesota Department of Human Services, which is charged with licensing and inspecting methadone clinics; and proponents of methadone treatment. He said he’ll also ask administrators for Duluth’s methadone clinic, the Lake Superior Treatment Center.

Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, said he wants to learn more about the tax dollars used to pay for methadone treatment. The News Tribune found that taxpayers have spent $43 million on care for methadone patients who are on state-funded health insurance.

“It’s clearly a big issue for the region, clearly we don’t know enough about it, and clearly we don’t have enough fiscal oversight,” Reinert said.

Regulations for providing methadone treatment are governed by federal law, which states can change to make more stringent but can’t weaken. Several states have passed laws in recent years adding increased oversight and regulations to methadone treatment, such as in Pennsylvania, which requires that methadone patients who need the state to pay for their transportation be taken to the clinic that is closest to them. The state also enacted legislation that would create a team to review any deaths related to the use of methadone.

The Maine legislature has passed laws limiting tax-dollar reimbursement for methadone patients to two years and prohibits people with methadone in their system from operating a commercial motor vehicle.

None of those laws exist in Minnesota, which adheres to the minimum federal rules.

Proponents of methadone treatment say when states pass tighter regulations of federal laws, it often has negative consequences for patients. Tennessee, for example, only allows patients to be on methadone treatment for two years. That’s resulted in many of those patients going to back to illegal drugs, said Mark Parrino, president of the American Association for the Treatment of Opioid Dependence.

“Anytime you impose limits on the duration of treatment, there are always negative results,” Parrino said.

Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, the chairman of the state Health and Human Services Finance Committee who will be co-chairing the methadone hearing with Huntley, said he’s not familiar enough with methadone treatment to make any recommendations for legislation similar to laws passed in other states.

“At this point, we just want to start a discussion,” Abeler said.

Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, the ranking member of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, said he’s hopeful the hearing will help legislators determine whether new laws are needed or current laws need to be better enforced.

“Hopefully, we can get to a place where can do a lot better with this important policy,” Lourey said.

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