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Klobuchar urged to use recovering addicts in opioid fight

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"Continuity of care is extremely crucial," says Peggy Weivoda, of Chatfield, right during a forum on the opioid epidemic Wednesday. Her son died of a heroin overdose in 2015. Cindy Nelsen also attended.
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After sitting quietly for more than an hour, Tiffany Hunsley broke her silence from the back of the room. Her emotional words hit home.

During Wednesday's public forum organized by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the founder of Recovery is Happening urged law enforcement officials, medical specialists and politicians to lean on people like her to combat the opioid epidemic. With most of the 50-plus member crowd nodding along, she passionately argued that recovering addicts should be considered part of the solution as the nation searches for answers amidst thousands of overdose deaths.

"We are ready to take action even after doors are shut right in our face," Hunsley told the seven member panel, which included Olmsted County Sheriff Kevin Torgerson and two experts from Mayo Clinic.

"We're not allowed in schools. We're not allowed in hospitals," she said. "Now, some of those barriers are starting to be removed. We, the recovery community, are the solution."

Mayo Clinic physician Casey Clements was among those who praised Hunsley's idea, calling it "the next wave" in the fight to combat opioid addiction, which claimed more than 600 lives across Minnesota in 2016. Two panelists — Steve Coddington, of Common Ground, and Phillip Rutherford, of Faces and Voices of Recovery — were among many in attendance who could fit that bill.

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Klobuchar wasn't in attendance, but members of her staff are on a two-day tour of the state to gather information and ideas about how to combat the opioid crisis. They held meetings Wednesday in Eagan, Faribault and Rochester. Today, meetings are planned for Mankato, New Ulm and Litchfield.

Klobuchar was one of four senators to lead the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act in 2016, and her support for the 21st Century Cures Act helped Minnesota secure $5 million earlier this year to support prevention, treatment and recovery services. She and others are now pushing the LifeBOAT Act, which would establish reliable funding to support and expand access to substance abuse treatment.

"We don't want to keep our heads in the sand or looking out the window at our Capitol (for help)," Klobuchar said in a pre-recorded video that kicked off the meeting. "Let's get on it."

Coddington, who used to work at Fountain Centers in Albert Lea, said there's still a harmful stigma around addiction. Because it affects roughly 10 percent of the population, he thinks addiction should be viewed similarly to cancer.

Torgerson urged Klobuchar to pursue additional funding so his department can continue to carry naloxone. The grant allowing his staff to carry the live-saving overdose treatment expires soon and, he says, "we don't have that money set aside."

The sheriff said opioids have created a "three-headed monster" with addiction, mental health and public safety concerns.

"These drugs, they know no boundaries," Torgerson said. "They don't know status or symbols. It starts with prescription drugs and ends up with heroin and other drugs. Scary, scary, scary."

The people sitting in the front row of Wednesday's forum are all too familiar with that fact — they've all lost a loved one to opioid abuse. Some say they've sought to share their cautionary tales in local schools and been rejected.

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Rochester's Sharon Schlingmann, who lost her daughter, Rachael, to heroin in 2012, was among that group. She pushed Torgerson and others to confront the reality of the situation, feeling that opioid issues in Rochester are being "pushed under the rug."

Hunsley said it remains a serious concern.

"Our community is suffering … (and) we have to band together," said Hunsley, who received two national awards for her advocacy in 2016.

"I, for one, have been to way too many funerals this year."

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Representatives from the office of U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar meet Wednesday with first responders, advocates and elected officials for a series of public forums focused on combating the opioid epidemic. Steve Coddington of the advocacy group Common Ground was one of the speakers.

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