Wisconsin Health Officials Gather To Tackle Drug Epidemic

2-Day Conference In Green Bay Focuses On Opioids, Which Killed Over 900 In 2017

pharmacist counts pills for a prescription
Rich Pedroncelli/AP Photo

Over the course of two days health officials and law enforcement from around the state will dissect a disaster, one that was man-made and years in the making. The opioid epidemic has taken lives and prompted lawsuits against drug manufacturers, not only in Wisconsin but across the country.

It’s one of the state’s biggest and most expensive health problems and this week people will gather to discuss what is being done about it at a conference Tuesday and Wednesday in Green Bay put on by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

The number of opioid deaths in Wisconsin has steadily grown. In 2017 there were 916 fatal opioid overdoses. But federal data indicates overdose deaths in the United States may be leveling off.

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State health officials are hopeful but cautious about what the future holds. Prescription painkillers, blamed on driving the crisis, are more difficult to get. Conversely, naloxone, a drug which can reverse an overdose, is more available.

But fentanyl is becoming more common — and it’s deadlier. The synthetic opioid is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine.

The conference will address opioid trends and diversion of legal drugs into the black market. The goal is to provide information that could be helpful to those tackling the epidemic.

“The purpose of the event is to provide all attendees with tools and strategies that hopefully they can use in their respective communities to address the opioid crisis,” said Paul Krupski, the director of opioid initiatives for DHS.

The opioid epidemic has hit the Midwest hard and some of the strategies that will be reviewed at the Wisconsin opioid conference come from neighboring states. In Lake County, Illinois, law enforcement has helped get those suffering with addiction into treatment through a program called “A Way Out.”

The program assisted nearly 450 people in just more than two years, according to a conference agenda.

Around Wisconsin there are similar efforts where drug users can avoid jail time if they complete treatment.

For some, treatment comes when they are on the cusp of death, brought to the emergency department after an overdose. Dane County was among the first to have recovery coaches in emergency rooms to assist patients following an overdose. The ED2Recovery Program is now being tried in other communities across the state.

“We are in over 20 hospitals statewide in high-need areas. We hope to expand that (ED2Recovery) program with additional federal grant funding,” Krupski said.

Emergency room visits for suspected overdoses have skyrocketed in the last several years. In Wisconsin they doubled from July 2016 through September 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Overdoses have continued to go up even as doctors prescribe fewer addictive painkillers like oxycodone. A report by the American Medical Association showed opioid prescriptions dropped 22 percent nationwide, and nearly 26 percent in Wisconsin, between 2013 and 2017. But across the nation, prescriptions for the overdose drug naloxone reached a record high for the first four months of 2018.

While the state has made strides in expanding treatment, there still isn’t enough to go around. Gov. Tony Evers wants to use federal dollars under the Affordable Care Act to expand Medicaid which health officials say could free up money for addiction treatment.

Some Republicans like U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin contend that Medicaid expansion has actually made the opioid crisis worse, which was later disputed in a research analysis.

While in Eau Claire last week, Wisconsin Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm promoted Medicaid expansion not only as a way to get medical care to 82,000 more people but also to boost addiction treatment for those who need it by providing more money for behavioral health and integration of drug treatment into primary care.

“In a number of ways we look at the behavioral health care system more broadly with opioids sort of leading the way in terms of what people are focused on in the crisis we’re facing,” Palm said. “In this part of the state and others, meth is also a considerable issue. While these investments help on the opioid side they will also help (with other drugs).”

Republican leaders have balked at the idea, saying the federal dollars might dry up and having more people on Medicaid could increase premiums for those with private insurance.

According to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, Wisconsin has missed out on more than $1 billion dollars in federal funding since 2014, because it did not expand Medicaid under the ACA.