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Pam Sagness, director of the behavioral health division for the North Dakota Department of Human Services, presents to members of the interim Health Services Committee during a hearing at the state Capitol in Bismarck in September the department's plan to carry out study results regarding the behavioral health system.

After a record number of 77 drug overdose deaths in North Dakota in 2016, that number has declined slightly.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released drug overdose deaths per state for 2017. In North Dakota, overdose deaths decreased for the first time from 77 deaths in 2016 to 68 deaths in 2017.

Number of drug overdose deaths in North Dakota

Year Deaths
2013 20
2014 43
2015 61
2016 77
2017 68

Pam Sagness, director of the Division of Behavioral Health for the state Department of Human Services, said the decrease is one indicator of the success of drug overdose prevention efforts started in 2017.

"This is really kind of like the first data point that we’re getting that speaks to some of those efforts," Sagness said.

In 2017, North Dakota launched the Recovery Reinvented Program, as well as began disseminating naloxone to communities and working to get medication-assisted treatment available across the state.

But Sagness said work to prevent drug overdose deaths in North Dakota is far from over. The state will continue to utilize federal grants and other funds to continue these efforts.

"Hopefully we've turned a corner," she said.

Also, North Dakota lawmakers have signaled their support for additional funding to address behavioral health and substance use disorders. Last month, the Senate passed a comprehensive bill that includes a boost in funding for behavioral health services, including $4.5 million to expand the Recovery Reinvented Program to serve people outside of the criminal justice system.

The bill, Senate Bill 2012, is now under review in the House.

Another bill moving forward in the Legislature would establish a drug fatalities review panel, which Sagness said would also aid in drug overdose prevention efforts.

Sagness said Senate Bill 2196 was a recommendation from the Reducing Pharmaceutical Narcotics Task Force. The measure would establish a group to review overdose deaths and find gaps in services.

"What it would do is get at the root cause, was this death preventable? And if so, are there some system changes we could make so we wouldn’t have that happen again," Sagness said.

The bill passed in the Senate and is now being considered in the House.

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(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or


Education and Health Reporter