OPINION: Fighting for justice in Cherokee Nation

BY BILL JOHN BAKER
Principal Chief
06/30/2017 12:00 PM
When the U.S. Surgeon General visited with Oklahoma tribal leaders last May, he declared that the “prescription opioid epidemic that is sweeping across the U.S. has hit Indian country particularly hard.” This statement especially applies to the Cherokee Nation, where opioid-related overdoses have more than doubled in recent years and more and more Cherokee Nation citizens suffer from opioid addiction. The opioid epidemic has affected every facet of our society: from our economy and our hospitals to our schools and our homes. Our children’s health and well-being is especially threatened by the epidemic, putting the future of the Cherokee Nation itself at risk.

When I was elected Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation in 2011, I made a commitment to protect the health and welfare of our nearly 350,000 citizens about half of whom live inside our sovereign tribal boundaries in northeast Oklahoma. We are made up of many small communities and we feel the impacts of the opioid epidemic every day, as we watch our friends, neighbors, children and parents grapple with the consequences of opioid addiction. That’s why I take this epidemic so seriously and why we have taken proactive measures to fight it. To curb abuse at the point of care, our doctors and hospitals implemented a prescription monitoring program (“PMP”). Long before it was required, our healthcare system also adopted information technologies to stop illegal distribution of prescription opioids.

Despite our best efforts, the crisis is still raging through our community. This is a matter of life and death, which is why we are doing everything in our power to prevent bad actors from flooding the Cherokee Nation with prescription opioids. Large distributors and retailers operating in the Cherokee Nation—McKesson Corporation, Cardinal Health, Inc., AmerisourceBergen, CVS Health, Walgreens Boots Alliance, Inc., and Walmart Stores, Inc.—have fueled this epidemic by saturating our society with these highly-addictive painkillers, ignoring obvious warning signs that these drugs are not landing in the right hands. We pay for our citizen’s health care from cradle to grave and this epidemic has cost us hundreds of millions of dollars, not to mention the thousands of lives lost and ruined. That’s dollars we could be using for our schools, hospitals, roads or new housing projects. I cannot stand by as Cherokee Nation citizens suffer while these companies continue to make huge profits at our expense.

We must act now to protect our future – the next generation. No one has felt the impact of the opioid crisis more than our children. For children born into families struggling with opioid addiction, their tragic story is one of a cycle of abuse and neglect. According to a recent study, pregnant Native American women are up to 8.7 times more likely to be diagnosed with opiate dependency or abuse. This translates to a high volume of Cherokee babies born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome – a disease with lifelong physical, mental, and emotional impacts on the child. Many of these babies must stay in the hospital for weeks and some must be immediately transferred to Tulsa-area hospitals via emergency helicopter to receive life-saving care. These infants are then immediately placed in our foster system. Cherokee families are torn apart before they have a chance to succeed and our children, families, and communities suffer as a result.

Enough is enough. The opioid epidemic is ripping apart families, straining our society’s resources, and wreaking havoc across the Cherokee Nation. That is why we’ve taken matters into our own hands, and are going to make sure distributors and retail pharmacies are held accountable for their negligence and greed. If the drug distributers and retailers in our communities fulfilled their duty to act as a “check” on the system by monitoring, reporting, and preventing illegal opioid activity, the epidemic could have been stopped. My hope is that this case will bring justice to our Nation and serve as an example to other communities dealing with the social and financial strains of the opioid epidemic.

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