We Asked Oregon Leaders What They’ll Do to Reduce Teenage Fentanyl Deaths

Gov. Tina Kotek’s spokesperson says she was “deeply concerned about the findings published in The Lund Report.”

PIL basketball game. (Blake Benard)

As WW’s newsroom read The Lund Report’s alarming account of Oregon’s failures to prepare teens for fentanyl’s arrival, we wondered: Would anyone in Salem start paying attention?

Several key officials pledge immediate action.

The Lund Report’s revelations about teen fentanyl overdoses come at a time when lawmakers are already working on a comprehensive, bipartisan opioid harm reduction package, House Bill 2395, spearheaded by state Rep. Maxine Dexter (D-Portland).

The chairs of both the House and Senate Health Care committees deferred questions about The Lund Report’s investigation to Dexter, a pulmonologist who has treated overdose patients.

Dexter says she was “deeply saddened and disappointed” after reading The Lund Report investigation. But she’s also optimistic lawmakers are serious about tackling the problem.

“As a state, we have failed our youth and those most in need of support,” Dexter says. “We absolutely must take urgent action this session to help mitigate the tragic and rapidly escalating number of youth in our state who are dying as a result of unintentional opioid overdoses.”

Among the provisions in the pending bill specifically aimed at young Oregonians are easing restrictions on distribution of naloxone in schools, decriminalization of fentanyl testing strips, and allowing minors to get outpatient drug treatment without parental consent. (The bill passed the House 48-9 on March 6.)

“Our providers, both inpatient and outpatient, are overwhelmed and underresourced and see firsthand the tragic harm this lack of access to treatment is having across our community,” Dexter adds.

Tim Heider, a spokesman for the Oregon Health Authority, says OHA is taking concrete steps “by increasing rates for providers, expanding residential and outpatient treatment access for young people, helping providers retain counselors, and increasing the availability of effective medication-assisted treatment.”

Heider adds that the agency is taking other specific steps to combat the overdose crisis. “Through a coordinated effort with the Oregon Department of Education, OHA is supporting districts to stock naloxone and train school staff to use it in the event of an emergency,” he says, although Heider notes neither agency currently has the authority to require schools to stock the anti-overdose medication.

OHA is also doing greater outreach in schools to help familiarize students and staff with dangers of fentanyl, he says, and is working with law enforcement to identify risks in hard-hit towns.

Gov. Tina Kotek’s spokesperson, Elisabeth Shepard, says Kotek was “deeply concerned about the findings published in The Lund Report.” Along with housing and homelessness, mental health and substance use disorder are the top of the governor’s priority list. She is seeking $1 billion for expanded mental health and addiction treatment capacity, as well as ongoing support for new residential treatment programs for minors and overdose prevention programs.

Kotek wants state agencies to look more widely at substance abuse and mental illness, Shepard says, and do a better job of leveraging federal funding and to heed The Lund Report’s investigation. “She believes Oregon must do more to warn young people about fentanyl.”

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