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Senate committee examines costs of substance abuse on tribes

Witnesses testify at a Senate Indian Affairs Committee oversight hearing on July 29, 2015. Photo by Andrew Bahl for Indianz.Com

Lawmakers question commitment of key agencies
By Andrew Bahl
Indianz.Com Staff Writer

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee took on another sensitive topic on Wednesday, this time focusing on alcohol and drugs.

Lawmakers and witnesses shared devastating statistics about the impacts of substance abuse in Indian Country. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the chairman of the committee, said tribal members in his state are dying at young ages due to alcohol.

“On the Wind River Indian Reservation, the average age at death has for years hovered around 49 years of age," Barrasso said. "These premature deaths are due primarily to alcohol and alcohol-related injuries."

Yet Barrasso said he was "astonished" by what he deemed to be inadequate responses from the Indian Health Service and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. He accused both agencies of not doing enough to lower the death rates.

Barrasso also noted that SAMHSA failed to submit testimony on time for the hearing. A notice went up on the committee's website two weeks ago.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: Oversight Hearing on "Examining the True Costs of Alcohol and Drug Abuse in Native Communities"

"The testimony that was submitted does little more than recite basic information included on the agency's website," Barrasso said. "The testimony doesn't even explain what the agency is actually doing to address alcohol and substance abuse in Indian Country."

Other lawmakers also questioned the federal government's commitment. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota) said the IHS doesn't even provide basic services in most tribal communities.

"Indian Health has been unrelentingly unable address health care crises in Indian Country and this is a huge part of it -- behavioral and mental health," Heitkamp said. "Let's not pretend that we're providing services."

Citing a years-old figure from the National Drug Intelligence Center, Robert McSwain, the acting director of the IHS, said illicit drug use resulted in $193 billion in productivity, healthcare, and criminal justice costs for the entire nation. But he acknowledged that agency lacks specific data on how the problem affects Indian Country.

“Given the high rate of alcohol, violent criminal behavior, suicidality and alcohol-related mortality, the costs to Native communities will continue to be far too high,” McSwain said.

Mirtha Beadle, the director of the Office of Tribal Affairs at SAMHSA, admitted that inadequate resources are an issue. The Tribal Behavioral Health Grants program was funded for the first time in fiscal year 2014 with $5 million. A request for $30 million for 2016 has not been fully embraced on Capitol Hill.

“The funding is limited," Beadle said. "We’ve tried very hard to coordinate with each other. The question is how we bring resources together to be as effective as possible."

Melanie Benjamin, the chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Indians, speaks at the second-annual Summit on the Crisis of American Indian Children in Minnesota on May 28, 2015. The summit was organized by the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and hosted by the Mille Lacs Band. Photo from Facebook

For the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Indians in Minnesota, opiate addiction has become a huge problem. Melanie Benjamin, the tribe's chief executive, described the threat as the “21st century version of smallpox blankets."

"More than 28 percent of the babies born addicted to opiates are Native American even though we are only about 2 percent of the population," Benjamin said.

"Last year, 262 Indian babies were born with opiate addiction in Minnesota and cost about $8 million in medical care during withdrawal," she added. The costs only grow as these children are often placed in foster care and often require additional services to address their health needs, she said.

"We need funding for a culturally-based treatment center for pregnant Native women in Minnesota," Benjamin testified. Her tribe alone saw 21 babies addicted to opiates last year.

John Walters, the chief operating officer and director of the Center for Substance Abuse Policy Research at the Hudson Institute, called attention to an emerging issue. He said tribes should not legalize marijuana even though the Department of Justice opened the door with the 2014 Wilkinson memo.

“If there ever was a bad idea we ought to to stop, this is it," Walters told the committee. "Of course It doesn't just affect people in Indian Country but it's a terribly, terribly destructive additional harm that we are inflicting on people who are already suffering."

Sunny Goggles, the director of the White Buffalo Recovery Center for the Northern Arapaho Tribe in Wyoming, underscored Barrasso's earlier assessment about the negative impacts of substance abuse in her community. But she said youth represent a bright spot in breaking the cycles of addiction.

"Our youth are our resources," Goggles said. "I have amazing youth back at home and we're utilizing them to be peer mentors for our younger people."

The hearing was the committee's last before the August recess. Congress will go on break until early September so no business will be conducted for the next few weeks.

Committee Notice:
Oversight Hearing on "Examining the True Costs of Alcohol and Drug Abuse in Native Communities." (July 29, 2015)

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Senate panel sets hearing on substance abuse in Indian Country (7/27)

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