Washington lawmakers, tribes introduce bills addressing opioid, fentanyl crisis

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PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Washington lawmakers introduced the “Heal One Washington” legislative package on Monday as part of an effort to address the state’s opioid and fentanyl crisis in cooperation with tribes.

The package includes a slate of bills to revamp Washington’s behavioral health system, streamline licensing for Indian healthcare workers, and increase accessibility to treatment facilities.

“We are standing here today demanding that we collaborate, that we work together to heal one Washington. The opioid and fentanyl crisis, a dark undercurrent threatening the fabric on society, requires us to stand united and say, ‘you’re not alone,’” Rep. Debra Lekanoff (WA-40) said during Monday’s press conference announcing the legislation. “Fighting the epidemic is not just a duty, it’s the most critical part of generations of Washingtonians – generations of Washingtonians who are losing their lives every day.”

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Drug poisonings are a leading cause of death for Americans between 18 and 45 years old, Lekanoff said, citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a press release. In 2022, more than 110,000 people died from drug overdoses in the United States, with nearly 70% of those deaths attributed to fentanyl and synthetic opioids, officials said.

“Tribal wellness centers are the forefront of Washington healing for over a decade [and] offer a beacon of hope. Together we can amplify the efforts and create a united front against this persuasive threat,” Rep. Lekanoff continued. “We are focusing on investing in our facilities. Across Washington state, we are investing and building what next steps are going to be for the next administration and for the legislature.”

The Heal One Washington package includes several bills with a focus on how the state can work with tribes to address the opioid and fentanyl crisis, Lekanoff’s office told KOIN 6 News, adding that more bills will be introduced during the 2024 legislative session that aim to address the crisis.

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The package includes HB 1877, which aims to improve Washington’s behavioral health system by focusing on collaboration, cultural sensitivity, and streamlined licensing for tribal health care providers.

HB 2305 would create a uniform process to return fugitives to prevent them from “evading justice” by crossing jurisdictions.

Additionally, HB 2372 would allow the transfer of land to tribes for tribal alcohol, substance use disorder, and behavioral health services.

Lastly, HB 2075 aims to streamline licensing for tribal healthcare providers.

Among the package’s proposed funding, the lawmakers request $950,000 for the Washington State Tribal Opioid and Fentanyl Crisis Task Force, $9 million for youth facilities and adjacent land for the Healing Lodge of the Seven Nations, Spokane, along with $40 million for adult substance use disorder facilities for services that can be used by all Washingtonians.

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“The challenges with opioid use disorder are disproportionately impacting our native residents of our state,” said Rep. Nicole Macri (WA-43.) “The struggles that we are facing as a state impact not us today, but generations of people.”

“We in the House and in the legislature have been working on this issue for many years. In particular, in the last couple of years, we’ve passed bills and made significant investments to expand our behavioral health system from recovery navigators to outreach workers, to investing in the capital needs of building out health care centers and facilities across our state,” Macri said. “I am hopeful that we will see a significant additional package of both policy and budget investments in the area of opioid response.”

Lummi Nation Chairman Anthony Hillaire added, “We’re the face of a fentanyl crisis, the state of emergency. A drug that has devastated our families, devastated us at Lummi Nation, a drug like we have never seen. And in our history, from our elders, from our ancestors, we have learned to take care of ourselves, to stand up to any threat to our way of life, any threat to our wellbeing. And this is the most devastating threat we have ever seen, which means that we have to do something about it.”

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Nate Tyler, a council member of the Makah Tribe, noted his and his family’s journey with addiction and recovery and the need for more treatment centers.

“I served in the military in 1990 right out of high school. Right out of boot camp, I got sent to the first Gulf War in 1991. (In) 1992, I got sent to Somalia, spent just a little over five months in Somalia. Got to understand, you know, as a 19-year-old, what I seen, and what I dealt with. And me, and a handful of my friends, we actually got into drugs. ’93., ’94, ’95, I had an addiction problem. ’95, I checked myself into treatment in Spokane – a nine-hour trip from Makah. Nine hours,” Tyler said.

“Fast forward, in 2015, I’m attending college, Everett Community College, welding, and my grandson was born, and his parents were using opioids, fentanyl and he was born in an Everett hospital for proper care, and he was placed with us. So, I was making a trip you know, from Everett Community College catching that last Edmonds Ferry back to Neah Bay. I get home and one in the morning, two in the morning to care for our grandkid,” Tyler added. “We’re all dealing with this as families, and not just on the reservation, but everywhere is dealing with this epidemic.”

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Some of the barriers Makah faces are the lack of behavioral health, mental health, and detox treatment because of the tribe’s remote location, Tyler noted. The councilmember also recognized the work of other tribes, including Lummi, who have built medically assisted treatment centers.

“Everybody has potential, but we have to get these people healthy, bring them back home, and allow them to release that potential,” Tyler said.

Nisqually Chairman Willie Frank III, who noted his 10 years of sobriety from opioids, furthered, “I think of where we are today as tribes, you know, you see the hurt up here, the frustration, and you see the pain. You know, we’ve all experienced so much in our lives before fentanyl, before opioids, before alcohol, before anything else comes into play. We’re healing ourselves here as Indian people.”

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“Fentanyl doesn’t discriminate on a race, age, color, whatever you might be. So, getting everybody to really open their eyes to this challenge right now is going to be something that all of our tribal nations, the State of Washington, local governments, and the federal government really can come together and heal and bring this great state together,” Frank said.

Concluding the press conference, Rep. Lekanoff emphasized the need for tribes and the state to work together to resolve the drug crisis.

“I had Washingtonians tell me, ‘Representative Lekanoff, this isn’t just a tribal issue.’ And I’m like, ‘you’re right.’ This is a crisis in Washington state and the tribes are standing forward and saying we’re here to help,” Lekanoff said.

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According to Lekanoff, thousands of people are being helped every day by treatment centers set up by tribes in the state. However, the lawmakers say more work needs to be done.

“We are looking for local, state, and tribal governments to stand up and heal together. This is only the beginning of the conversation,” Lekanoff said.

The tribes are also calling on Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to declare an opioid and fentanyl state of emergency.

The leaders say an emergency declaration would serve as a symbol that the state is prioritizing the crisis and would help break down barriers and avoid tribes competing with each other for grants to build treatment centers.

The governor’s office told KOIN 6 News that state emergency orders generally stop statutory obligations to free up resources or help them be distributed faster.

Inslee’s office said they extensively looked at an emergency declaration. However, the office decided there are no new resources they are aware of that would become available — adding that the state legislature is in the best position to pass funding and policy to address the crisis.

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