It’s a diverse group, but they all have one thing in common. The members of Minnesota’s new Opioid Epidemic Response Advisory Council are focused on identifying and funding programs aimed at combating the state’s opioid crisis.
Earlier this month, the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) released the names of the 19 voting members of the council, established last spring by the state Legislature as part of the omnibus Opioids Bill. Opioid Advisory Council members will make recommendations for funding programs and services out of a portion of the projected $20.9 million in annual fees to be collected from drug makers and distributors.
Stacy Twite, DHS interim assistant commissioner for community supports, explained that the advisory council is charged with recommending how a part of the collected fees, known as the Opiate Epidemic Response Account, will be spent.
“The Legislature directed a portion of those funds to specific activities and left a balance of that account available for the advisory council to advise on how that funding should be spent,” Twite said.
Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said that because of this charge, the council’s focus will be on “setting priorities and making recommendations to the Legislature about programs and services that will combat the epidemic. More specifically, the council will review local, state and federal initiatives on education, prevention, treatment and services for individuals and families. They will also recommend specific programs and services to be funded by the commissioner of human services.”
The council is made up of representatives from hospitals, physicians’ associations, law enforcement, tribal governments, the Minnesota Legislature and nonprofits, as well as families and community members directly impacted by the opioid crisis. They come from a mix of rural and urban regions of the state.
Flanagan said that council members’ diversity was intentional. “The task force is made up of folks from across the system and across the state and has people whose lives have been directly impacted by the opioid crisis,” she said. Selecting council members with direct experience with the opioid crisis was key, Flanagan added: “For the governor and me, that has always been the most important thing — that any initiative we start has representatives from the very people who are most impacted by the issue themselves.”
One group that has felt the opioid crisis most acutely is the state’s Native population. Because of that, Flanagan explained that the council includes representatives with close ties to tribal nations.
“As a Native woman I know that this is something that directly impacts the Native community more than any other community in the state of Minnesota,” she said. “Native people are five times more likely to die of a drug overdose than white Minnesotans. It is clear to me that we need culturally relevant services. This is something I’ve been paying especially close attention to.”
The Walz administration has focused on the council’s formation, Flanagan said, adding that getting the group up and running — their first meeting was held Sept. 27 — felt like an important milestone. Expectations are high that the actions of the council, whose members were selected from more than 170 applicants, will begin to move the needle on opioid-related addiction and death statewide.
Flanagan said that she and Walz had made the council’s organization a priority. “This is something that the governor and I had an expectation that there needed to be a solution to this session,” she said.
Because she believes that the group’s cross-cultural, multiparty makeup will help move its recommendations more swiftly through the Legislature, Flanagan added, “I’m excited about the bipartisan leadership that got it done.”
The council’s bipartisan ethic is born of its founders, state Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, and State Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center; both lost a child to opioid overdose. The two worked together to craft the legislation, and both will serve on the council.
Flanagan said Minnesota owes the two legislators a debt. “As a mom myself, watching their complete dedication to the memory of their children and fighting with every fiber of their being to make change has been a true inspiration. I was inspired to witness their tireless dedication in my time in the Legislature and now as lieutenant governor. While nothing will bring back the children that they lost, I hope they have bit of a sense of peace and justice from watching this task force do their work.”
She also credits House Majority Whip Rep. Liz Olson, DFL-Duluth, with gathering the votes needed to pass the legislation: “She’s the kind of leader who really believes in listening to people across lines of difference and bringing them together. That’s what happened with the formation of this council and the legislation.”
The council will act as an independent body, with members drawing on their own experiences to select programs and services to investigate and bring forward to the Legislature for funding.
“We want the work of the task force to really stand on its own,” Flanagan said. “We are bringing good folks to the table who are able to work across systems to figure out what are the best solutions. I believe that when a group of people like this work together, significant things will get done.”
This significant work has been put on a tight deadline, Twite said. “The law that passed that established this council and set up a process has the council submitting a report to the Legislature as early as this coming March,” she said. “The Legislature was intentional about wanting the council to have a legislative voice, and they wanted to see progress quickly.”
The all-volunteer council will likely meet monthly. Meetings, which are open to the public, will be held at a range of locations across the state. Meeting dates and locations will be announced at a future date.
“There is a directive that they hold meetings in Greater Minnesota,” Twite said. “The mandate is that at least half of the meetings are to be held in locations outside of the seven-county metro area.”
Council member sampler
This past week, I was able to speak with three members of the Opioid Advisory Council. During our conversations, I learned more about the skills and background each brings to the job and what they hope to accomplish during their term on the board. Here are some brief profiles:
Insider’s perspective: Roy Sutherland
Too often, Roy Sutherland opens the newspaper and sees another reminder that the state’s opioid crisis is far from over. “When you see your patients’ names in obituaries because they’ve overdosed on opioids or other substances,” he said, “it gives you a perspective on how this crisis has devastated a lot of individuals and families in our state.”
Sutherland, a licensed psychologist and administrator for the addiction services program at Allina Health, joined the Opioid Advisory Council as a licensed opioid treatment program, sober living program, or substance use disorder program representative. He believes that the experience he’s gained working to help people rebuild a healthy life in the face of opioid use disorder will be an invaluable skill that he can bring to the council.
Sutherland’s time at Allina Health has expanded his understanding of the unique tools that nonprofit health care systems can use to address the national addiction crisis.
“I’m hoping that I’m going to be able to serve as a voice and bring a perspective that represents a large substance abuse and opioid treatment program,” he said. “My role as a clinician and administrator for Allina has helped me understand on a personal and professional level how this epidemic has impacted a lot of my patients and their families, not only in the seven-county metro area but also in rural and outstate Minnesota.”
Joe Clubb, Allina Health vice president of operations for mental health and addiction, said that Sutherland’s appointment will bring an important voice to the council. “I’m thrilled that Roy has been appointed to the council and support the perspectives that he brings in terms of both rural and urban access to treatment,” he said. “This council’s work has the potential to help so many people: Every individual impacted by opioid addiction is connected to people who love them. Roy will represent the role of inpatient and residential treatment programs and their patients well.”
Sutherland, who was born and raised on the Iron Range in the Grand Rapids area, said that he believes lack of access to high-quality addiction treatment services has helped to exacerbate the opioid crisis in some of the state’s most isolated areas. And access to treatment isn’t all that much better in the state’s urban areas, he added.
“The truth is,” he said, “lack of access to treatment is a problem everywhere.”
Sutherland has conducted research on the link between PTSD and substance use. He thinks that his findings could help shape some of the council’s direction going forward.
“Another reason opioid addiction has become a problem is because we are not getting into the roots of why people are using substances,” Sutherland said. “Is it because of physical and emotional pain or a diagnosis of PTSD and depression or homelessness or a lack of sober houses or the stigma that still exists around mental health and addiction? These are questions that we should try to answer.”
Perfect fit: Lexi Reed Holtum
Lexi Reed Holtum, executive director of the Steve Rummler Hope Network, a Twin Cities nonprofit dedicated to heightening awareness of the disease of addiction as it relates to chronic pain, never expected to be a member of the Opioid Advisory Council. She’s a busy woman, and she figured that someone else from the organization, which focuses on preventing opioid overdose deaths through training, education and advocacy, would be a perfect match for the group. She even encouraged others to apply.
But her organization’s board of directors had a different opinion. After reviewing the applications that came in, they decided that Reed Holtum was the best fit for the job, and they told her so. “In the end my board asked me to take the seat,” Reed Holtum said. “They were thoughtful in that process.”
Though she thought finding a different person to take on the Advisory Council role might help develop a new leader from inside her organization, Reed Holtum said she understands why her board thought she should step forward.
“What I have done for the last eight years of my life is to submerge myself in creating these outcomes as an organization,” she explained. “One of the greatest things we’ve been able to do so well is network across all of these different domains on the state and national level. When I was asked to take the seat, I said yes because of the breadth of knowledge that I have on this topic. I know it’s something that only I can bring to the table.”
When she saw the names of her fellow council members, Reed Holtum said that she was impressed by the range of perspectives that are represented. “I think that with the diversity we have we will have differences of opinion,” she said. “I believe that when we have diversity and differences of opinion it just makes us stronger. It makes us have a wider view that allows us to see perspectives we wouldn’t otherwise consider.”
Though outside observers might theorize that having influence over a large amount of funds will make the Opioid Advisory Council an influential body, Reed Holtum is concerned that in the end the group’s impact may be muted.
“If we actually stop and look at the big picture,” she said, “I don’t feel like we’ll be talking about all that much money. If the fund brings in $20 million, almost half of that will go to child protection. Other funds are allocated to other entities and systems. The remainder is actually what the council will advise the commissioner and the Legislature on. It’s not like we’re actually holding those pursestrings. In a large sense, we are going to essentially be a ‘review and governance committee.’”
Putting those concerns aside, Reed Holtum said she can’t help but have high hopes for what she and her fellow council members will be able to achieve.
“I feel honored and privileged to be part of this council,” she said. “Not only will I be representing individual stakeholders, legislators, governments, for-profits and nonprofits, counties and systems for opioid addiction, but I will also be a strong voice for chronic pain. This is an important opportunity that I just can’t let go.”
Judicial advocate: Korey Wahwassuck
Opioid addition creates a vicious circle. At least that’s what Korey Wahwassuck, a justice in Minnesota’s ninth judicial district, has seen over her long history of guiding people through the state’s legal system. A former tribal attorney and associate judge for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, she’s seen history repeat itself more times than she cares to count.
“I have seen what problems with addiction have done in the tribal communities and for other people in the state,” Wahwassuck said. “Here, in Greater Minnesota, I’m seeing the same kids that were involved in child protection cases when I was in Leech Lake now appearing in front of me on their own delinquency matters. And I am also now seeing them in court in their own child protection cases.”
The impact of the opioid crisis runs deep in northern Minnesota’s Native population, Wahwassuck said. As a tribal attorney specializing in child protection cases, she saw firsthand how addiction tears families apart and creates trauma that reverberates across generations.
Wahwassuck, who has a family member who has struggled with opioid addiction but is now in recovery, helped to form the state’s first joint-jurisdiction wellness courts, in Leech Lake and Cass County and Leech Lake and Itasca County. These courts, often referred to as drug or DWI court, work to find humane legal options for individuals facing addiction and their families. The goal, Wahwassuck explained, is to find solutions that work for everyone. The name change is intended to reflect that.
“We try to take a holistic approach,” she said. “These are the first courts in the nation where we have had a tribal court justice and a state court justice take the bench together and address these issues jointly.”
Wahwassuck said that she was encouraged to apply for a position on the council. “I was originally contacted by DHS,” she said. “They got my name from someone and thought my experience working in trial court and with tribes and my work as a judge would beneficial.”
She’s enthusiastic about the opportunity to serve. She hopes that council members will be able to gain strength from their differences and bring that united power to their decision-making.
“I really think this council is going to give us a chance to take a comprehensive look at this crisis from different perspectives,” Wahwassuck said. “There is a great cross-section of experience from different members of this task force. I’m impressed with the cross-section of people who have been selected.”
Because the state’s tribal communities have been so negatively impacted by the opioid crisis, Wahwassuck thinks the voice of the council’s Native representatives will be key.
“Having this tribal voice at the table is very important,” she said. “I think this diversity on the council it is so important because of the disparate impacts and the disparities we have in the state right now. Tribal communities are being hugely impacted by the opioid crisis, but we are not always at the table. Decisions get made and we aren’t always well informed about them. It is important that the tribes have a voice in this process so that the cultural aspects can be brought in to help our people heal.”