Come 2016, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Services are teaming up in an effort to better address drug abuse in Indian Country.

Along with the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, the two agencies announced a memorandum of understanding on Dec. 16, 2015 at the Indian Health Resources Center that will allow for the training of BIA officers on how to identify opioid and heroin overdoses and administer an atomized dosage of naloxone. Also known as narcan, naloxone is a synthetic drug that blocks the nervous system’s opiate receptors. It can reverse an overdose if administered in time, either by an injection into muscle tissue or by inhaling it.

The pilot program, which will include Oklahoma-based BIA officers, involves an eight-hour training course. An estimated 230-240 officers are expected to participate in the initial rollout, with the potential for tribal law enforcement officers to be added later on.

“It’s a great first step for Indian Country,” Associate Director of field operations for the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Office of Justice Services Charles Addington said. “We’re trying to get new resources out there because our officers are sometimes faced with being in rural areas with minimal resources, so this is a great first step in moving forward so we can save some lives.” 

With its curriculum still being developed, officials with the BIA and IHS did not have a timeline for when the training would start, nor did they have a figure on all of the costs associated with the IHS-funded program. As per the MOU, 91 pharmacies at IHS operated facilities nationwide, including nine sites across Oklahoma, will be authorized to distribute the drug to BIA officers.

Pharmacies operated under a tribal self-governance agreement, such as those offered through the Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s two clinics in Shawnee, Oklahoma, are not required to participate in the program. However, Dr. Susan Karol, the chief medical officer for Indian Health Services, said tribally-operated pharmacies would be welcome to join in.

“We would love to have those tribal pharmacies participate,” she said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the rate of opioid abuse-related deaths among American Indians and Alaska Natives nationwide has increased almost four-fold since 2009. Data collected by IHS indicates that the rate of drug-related deaths among American Indians and Alaska Natives is almost double that of the general population, with up to 130 overdose fatalities per day in 2014 alone.

Opioid painkillers, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone and hydromorphone, are responsible for three-fourths of all prescription drug overdose deaths.

“We know we need a comprehensive response to this,” said Michael Botticelli, the White House’s Director of National Drug Control Policy. “In terms of reducing the overprescribing of prescription drugs, ensuring that treatment is available is critically important. But none of this is sufficient if people die and if we don’t save their lives to be able to get them into care and treatment.”