As the current opioid epidemic has unfolded across the U.S., one of the hardest-hit groups has been Native Americans. Overdose deaths of native populations in the lower 48 states and Alaska have increased by five times between 1999 and 2015.
Michael Toedt, M.D., medical director of the Indian Health Service, told the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs earlier this month that the overdose deaths of Native Americans have been higher for native populations than for any other group.
Data from the Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC) shows that fatal overdoses of Native Americans have increased to roughly 22 deaths for every 100,000 people in metropolitan areas, and about 20 people in every 100,000 for rural areas.
But, as an article on DrugAddictionNow.com pointed out, the statistics may not represent the true numbers. Death certificates often list Native Americans as another race. As a result, deaths could be up to 35 per cent more than the CDC data shows, officials said.
Federal officials have said tribes lack the resources to keep up with the growing impact of the epidemic. A number of tribes have filed lawsuits against against drug manufacturers and distributors, contending that they were negligent in not informing consumers and physicians about the risks of opiate addiction.
John Anderson, a U.S. attorney from New Mexico told the Senate committee that the opioid epidemic “knows no boundaries” and that native tribes’ “pueblos are equally affected by heroin and prescription opioids.”
Several of the senators questioned whether or not a decline in prosecutions in native lands has contributed to the epidemic.
Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota) said the government’s response needs to do more than just treating addicts, and that a comprehensive plan is needed to increase enforcement of drug laws.
In January, three Native American tribes in the Dakotas filed suit against opioid manufacturers and distributors, alleging they concealed and minimized the addiction risk of prescription drugs. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe, Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe and the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate sued 24 opioid industry groups in federal court.
The defendants include drug manufacturers Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries and Allergan, and distributors McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health Inc. and AmerisourceBergen Corp.
The lawsuit follows more than 70 cases filed across the country, including in Mississippi, Washington, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
“The prescription opioid crisis has hit Indian Country hard,” Purdon told CBS News, adding he is “hopeful” that other North Dakota tribes will also file suit.
The complaint noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that one in 10 Native Americans used prescription opioids for non-medical purposes in 2012, which is double the rate of whites.
Between 2015 and 2016, Native Americans represented almost 18 percent of opioid-related deaths and 28 percent of patients treated for opioid use in South Dakota. At the time, Native Americans represented 9 percent of the state’s population.
“This epidemic has overwhelmed our public-health and law-enforcement services, drained resources for addiction therapy, and sent the cost of caring for children of opioid-addicted parents skyrocketing,” Johnson said.
Allegations against the defendants include deceptive marketing, fraudulent and negligent conduct and violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act. The complaint seeks a jury trial to determine monetary damages as well as an “abatement fund” to pay for treatment programs.