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Native American Overdose Deaths Surge Since Opioid Epidemic

Overdose deaths in Native American communities have skyrocketed in the time the opioid epidemic has swept the U.S. and federal officials are looking for solutions.

Native Americans and Alaska Natives saw a fivefold increase in overdose deaths between 1999 and 2015, Dr. Michael Toedt told the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on Wednesday.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures indicate the increase in that period was higher for Native Americans than any other group, jumping to roughly 22 deaths for every 100,000 people in metropolitan areas and nearly 20 for every 100,000 people in non-metropolitan areas.

But the statistics, while staggering, may represent an undercount for Native Americans and Alaska Natives by as much as 35 percent, because death certificates often list them as belonging to another race, said Toedt, who is the Indian Health Services' chief medical officer.

The hearing in Washington comes as a growing number of tribes file lawsuits against drug manufacturers and distributors, saying they misrepresented addiction risks.

Federal officials said the opioid epidemic is straining tribal resources.

U.S. Attorney John Anderson, of New Mexico, said tribal leaders in a northern stretch of the state had called for solutions. One pueblo police chief described losing a brother and sister to overdoses, he said.

"The opioid epidemic knows no boundaries," he said, "and so our pueblos are equally affected by heroin and prescription opioids."

Several senators questioned whether a decline in prosecutions in Indian Country cases also had contributed to the crisis.

"We need a plan and it can't just be about treating the addiction," said U.S. Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota. "It needs to be a plan that gets law enforcement on the ground."

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