Health officials talk with Daines about opioid, meth abuse

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Sen. Steve Daines tours Kalispell Regional Medical Center’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit with hospital employee, Rochelle Mertz, on Feb. 20, prior to a panel discussion on Montana’s drug-abuse crisis. (Photo provided by the communications team for Senator Daines)

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, sat down with a panel of Kalispell Regional Healthcare officials and employees on Wednesday to discuss the state’s ongoing struggles with drug abuse and how Flathead County is battling what has been, and continues to be, a “major crisis” throughout Montana.

The panel highlighted a troubling increase in the number of babies being born at Kalispell Regional with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), a group of conditions caused when a newborn withdraws from certain drugs he or she is exposed to in the womb prior to birth.

The five panelists told Daines that drug abuse — particularly the abuse of opioids and methamphetamine — have at times “stretched the hospital’s resources.” They said the issue is one that extends beyond Kalispell Regional and can only be solved with teamwork among health-care providers, law enforcement, policy-makers and other stakeholders.

“If there was one solution, we would have solved it by now,” said panelist Leslie Nyman, director of behavioral health at Kalispell Regional. “It’s important for people to understand that it’s an everybody issue.”

The panel told Daines, who commended those “on the front lines of the epidemic,” about various ways the hospital is trying to combat the issue. Among many things, they highlighted telemedicine advancements in the hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

Multiple grants from the United States Department of Agriculture, awarded in 2014, 2016 and 2018, have allowed Kalispell Regional to incorporate a telehealth alliance system that allows rural health-care facilities to video conference in for certain needs. For example, Kalispell Regional purchased a simulation doll with a portion of its 2018 grant, which is used to help rural facilities perform neonatal abstinence syndrome assessments via the telehealth system.

The video equipment is set up in 10 critical-access hospitals in Ronan, Cut Bank, Libby, Conrad and other rural locations. Officials say hospitals where the equipment is set up are ones that often lack specialist providers such as neonatologists.

“It’s a valuable tool because if we can simulate all the behaviors and different characteristics these neonates have, it can make a big difference for those rural hospitals,” said Nichole Perisho, telehealth clinical coordinator for Kalispell Regional Healthcare.

Panel members emphasized two key obstacles to further advancing telemedicine: lack of broadband service and outdated policies. According to Perisho, policies surrounding telemedicine require, among other stipulations, for patients to be in a rural-designated area in order to receive Medicare reimbursements for the service.

“Policy is not keeping up with technology,” Daines agreed. “We have to keep on breaking down barriers to telemedicine so we can keep going with this service.”

Panelists also noted a recent shift in culture surrounding addiction that has benefited struggling and vulnerable patients.

“We are now trained to see addiction not as a moral failure, but as a disease that we can help,” said Lisa Smith a social worker at Kalispell Regional. “We approach the parents with more compassion and less judgment.”

Smith and others on the panel said the hospital’s non-judgmental atmosphere is more inviting for parents to come forward with any problems they may have.

Daines’ stop at Kalispell Regional was part of a multi-day venture that has brought him to a number of counties to discuss the state’s ongoing drug-abuse problem. He said while opioid abuse has been a prominent point of concern in recent years, health-care professionals and law enforcement statewide highlight meth abuse as being just as prevalent, if not more so.

“I’m having similar conversations and meth is coming up as being the crisis here in Montana. It’s surpassing opioids, it’s surpassing alcohol,” Daines said.

He continued, citing a recent report from the U.S. Marshal on meth seizures, which shows the Montana Violent Offenders Task Force seized about 15 pounds of meth in 2018, which is more than what was seized in 2017.

According to a 2018 report from the Department of Justice, the number of drug offenses in Montana has increased by 559 percent since 1980 and drug violations driven by methamphetamine use spiked 427 percent from 2010 to 2015.

“Everything we’re seeing from law enforcement is matching what we’re hearing now from our health-care professionals,” Daines said.

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4439 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com

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