A roundtable discussion in Eau Claire Monday was intended to gain some “good old-fashioned Wisconsin know-how” from area professionals on how to combat the opioid crisis.
U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, brought together health care professionals, members of law enforcement and other community leaders to talk about the way drug addiction affects the community and what can be done in response.
The conversation was set up as a follow-up to Kind’s Drug Epidemic Action Plan, which includes five points: Provide support to law enforcement communities and intercept drugs at the border, expand access to treatment, encourage alternative pain treatments, improve prescribing practices and increase access to mental health care through Medicaid expansion.
Kind opened the discussion by stating that he thinks the cycle of addiction is something that needs to be tackled using a public health approach; he also questioned what the appropriate role for the federal government is, then turned the conversation over to those in attendance.
Some of the comments from around the table addressed steps that have already been taken, but others touched on places where there is still room for improvement. All those who spoke voiced concern.
Sheila Weix, director of substance abuse services at Marshfield Clinic, brought up the fact that Marshfield Clinic has been working on how pain treatment is administered and monitored. But she’s concerned that there are not insurance coverage options for those who use the treatment.
“The fact that Medicare does not cover addiction treatment is just painfully evident,” Weix said. “I’m a member of the baby boomers, and there are many, many people in that cohort who need treatment. We’re seeing people in their 60s who are indeed injecting heroin and using other substances so we really need that. Somehow we need to find coverage for them.”
Insurance coverage isn’t the only issue. Sarah Driever, director of program development at Eau Claire Area Hmong Mutual Assistance Association, said there are other barriers that keep people in the community from receiving treatment when they need it.
It’s especially hard for members of minority populations who don’t speak English, she said.
“One population, or significant populations that are not counted in a lot of that evidence-based research and are oftentimes missed because of the communication barrier, is our refugee and immigrant population, especially our largest population, which is our Hmong population.”
David Carlson is a member of EX-incarcerated People Organizing, or EXPO, which works to end mass incarceration. He also brought up minority welfare at the roundtable.
“While blacks or African-Americans are over-represented in the arrest rate, they’re underrepresented in the treatment rate,” Carlson said.
That’s all connected to housing, education and employment, he said. What he wants to see is all of those aspects wrapped up in one treatment model.
Matt Rokus, deputy chief of the Eau Claire Police Department, said when it comes to drug investigations, officers must move forward based on what they have for information.
“We kind of go where the information takes us or leads us,” Rokus said. “I do understand because of poverty being more prevalent in different segments in our community, there’ll be higher use or higher involvement in that, but we have to go where the information leads us in that regard.”
Courtney Draxler, policy and systems division manager with the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, said what was missing from Kind’s action plan was the prevention arm.
Eau Claire school board President Joe Luginbill said substance abuse is tied in with mental health and trauma and there’s currently a shortage of mental health services available to address those issues before they get worse. As it stands, he said, the programs that do exist tend to operate independently of one another, rather than come together.
Kind said that’s a frustrating aspect of being a policy maker: seeing innovation in the field but also seeing how disparate the work can be.
In the end, what most of the community leaders at the roundtable had to say came back to a lack of resources. Kind himself recognized the need for funding, but others made comments relating to teamwork in creating meaningful solutions.
Kind wrapped up Monday’s discussion by reminding roundtable members that the opioid epidemic is an “all-hands-on-deck” issue that will require strong partnerships between local, state and federal levels and creative thinking.
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