St. Louis County had the highest per-capita rate of heroin and opioid overdose deaths in Minnesota in 2015, according to state Department of Health statistics.
The rate of 13.4 deaths per 100,000 people was more than three times that of similarly sized Washington County. It greatly exceeded Hennepin County, the state's most populous, which had a rate of only 8.4 deaths per 100,000 people.
The opioid crisis in the Northland prompted U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar in May to host a panel of doctors, treatment providers, police and other community leaders in Duluth hoping to find solutions to the growing issue.
On Wednesday, many of them were encouraged by the approval of the 21st Century Cures Act, which allocates $1 billion from the federal government to the treatment and prevention of opioid abuse.
The measure, part of a larger $6.3 billion bill that also includes $2 billion for Vice President Joe Biden's "Moonshot" cancer initiative, passed the U.S. Senate by a vote of 94-5 and is expected to be signed into law by President Barack Obama.
"I'll never forget that forum we had in Duluth," Klobuchar told the News Tribune by phone as she was headed to the Senate floor to vote on the bill. "All the doctors that showed up. All the community members that showed up. They're really getting some much-needed funding."
The legislation, which will provide funding over two years, builds on a bill co-authored by Klobuchar that was signed into law this summer encouraging states to pursue proven strategies in the fight against addiction.
Duluth police Lt. Jeff Kazel, commander of the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force, said he hoped some of his agency's efforts could be bolstered by the funds.
Reports of drug overdoses to the Duluth Police Department nearly quadrupled between 2014 and 2015 — from 26 to 100. The department didn't see a single overdose death between 2002 and 2010, but reported 64 in the four-year span of 2011-14.
Kazel suggested that a renewed DARE program in the schools and efforts to cut red tape around treatment programs would be beneficial for the Northland.
"It's a big-city problem," Kazel said. "We're a medium-sized city with a medium-sized budget."
But Kazel acknowledged that much uncertainty remains in the ultimate destination of the funds.
"My question is how much is this region going to see," he said. "It's a start. I don't think this is going to be the end-all answer to everything, but it's a start."
As for how the funds will be dispersed, Klobuchar said: "That'll be up to Donald Trump."
The Republican president-elect's administration will be responsible for granting the money to individual states, which in turn will distribute the funds locally.
"We would hope a lot would go into treatment," Klobuchar said. "That was the number one thing I heard about in Duluth."
Dr. Peter Henry, chief medical officer for the Essentia Health System, concurred.
He said access to treatment programs is limited throughout the state, but particularly in rural areas. Communities that are struggling economically, as the Iron Range has with a mining downturn, are especially susceptible to addiction woes, Henry said.
"Even in metropolitan areas, even though there's better resources, access to addiction specialists and treatment programs is really limited," he said. "From our standpoint, we're a very rural healthcare delivery system, and anything that can be done to help access to those type of specialists and/or treatment centers is going to be a step in the right direction."
Henry said a particular focus in the medical industry has been placed on collaboration among health systems and training doctors in prescription practices aimed at preventing opioid addiction.
"We want to make sure we don't add to the problem," he said. "There is enough of it out there as it is."
During her Duluth visit in May, Klobuchar also heard from members of Opioid Abuse Response Strategies, which includes representatives from community organizations, local government, higher education, health care systems, health plans, law enforcement and community members.
Greg Anderson, the dependency unit supervisor for St. Louis County Health and Human Services, said the group has identified several key areas that could benefit from increased federal funding.
Those measures include:
Development of evidence-based prevention strategies
More treatment centers and longer treatment programs with shorter waiting periods
Increased reimbursement rates for treatment services
Hiring of additional licensed alcohol and drug counselors
Increased funding for needle exchange plans
Establishment of a rapid-response support program for overdose survivors
Expansion of drug courts to accept more clients