An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

In fentanyl roundtable providers call for more resources, larger pipeline of health workers

Spokane Regional Health District HealthDr. Francisco Velázquez, left, talks with US Senator Maria Cantwell about fentanyl overdoses in Washington.
Rebecca White/SPR
Spokane Regional Health District Health Officer Dr. Francisco Velázquez, left, talks with US Senator Maria Cantwell, center, about fentanyl overdoses in Washington.

Washington Senator Maria Cantwell heard from healthcare providers, local law enforcement and others on the front lines of the opioid crisis in eastern Washington in a roundtable discussion today.

Those who spoke at the event told Cantwell fentanyl has strained an already overburdened health care system, such as Samantha Carroll, the Syringe Exchange Coordinator at the Spokane Regional Health District.

"Its a dismal outlook right now," she said. "I've been in this field for 20 years and this is a different ballgame."

She said the team at the health district focuses on harm reduction, offering a variety of services when people come in to exchange needles. She said because fentanyl comes in a pill form and is not normally injected, health care workers haven't been able to reach as many users as they had before.

Cantwell said Congress is working to disrupt the fentanyl supply chain through legislation that recently passed the Senate.

“Two things that we're working on all, one is the fend off fentanyl act, which is giving more resources to the drug enforcement agency, the department of treasury, others to really go after go after the drug traffickers,” she said. “We think this is really important, because we think the amount of supply coming into our state, and coming into our country, has just accelerated immensely.”

Toni Lodge, CEO of the Native Project, a Native American health center in Spokane, said indigenous communities have been hard hit by the fentanyl crisis. She said more resources would help, but the larger challenge now is finding certified addiction specialist and behavioral health workers. She said certification, education and the cost of licensing is prohibitively expensive.

“No matter what (positions) we create, I cannot staff them,” she said.

Cantwell said she’s also looking for ways to help local providers address opioid addiction and overdoses, such as allowing Medicaid funding to support more addiction resources, and widening the behavioral and substance use career pipeline.

She said Spokane is one of several communities in which she’s held listening sessions to find out what resources are still needed.

“Like everywhere else, (Spokane is) in need of more professionals, and more help,” she said. “We're going to look at ways to build capacity on top of programs that are in Spokane, what can we do to build back capacity.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projected that Washington experienced the single-highest increase in drug overdose deaths in the country this year.

Last year in Spokane County, drugs were the number-one cause of accidental death, with 250 people dying of overdoses. Either fentanyl or methamphetamine were detected in about 94% of those cases. In 2017, the medical examiner reported 67 people died of accidental overdoses. The leading cause of accidental death that year was falls.

Rebecca White is a 2018 graduate of Edward R Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. She's been a reporter at Spokane Public Radio since February 2021. She got her start interning at her hometown paper The Dayton Chronicle and previously covered county government at The Spokesman-Review.