Wisconsin saw progress in its campaign against painkiller abuse as opioid-overdose deaths fell last year, but a gathering Tuesday in Eau Claire emphasized ways to continue addressing the drug epidemic.
The state Department of Health Services released statistics recently showing that opioid-related deaths fell to 838 last year — the lowest level since 2015 — and emergency room visits to treat overdoses also declined.
“This is really the first true decrease we’ve seen since the late 1990s,” said Paul Krupski, the department’s director of opioid initiatives.
While Krupski saw the declining numbers as evidence that state efforts are working, he and others who spoke at the daylong event discussed the different challenges and strategies for addressing the opioid epidemic.
A crowd of 150 medical professionals, public health officials, educators and some state legislators gathered for the “Opioids and Our Community: A Collaborative Event” in the Davies Center on the UW-Eau Claire campus.
A series of speeches presented statewide and local information on opioid abuse before attendees spent an hour discussing ways they could collaborate to deal with the issue.
Jennifer Coyne, a clinical substance abuse counselor with the Eau Claire County Human Services Department, spoke about genetics and environmental factors that can lead to addiction.
Exposure to drugs and alcohol before age 21 — the stage in life where the human brain is still developing — is especially troublesome, Coyne said.
“If we can keep our kids from using drugs and alcohol, then chances of addictive behavior decline substantially,” she said.
Coyne also spoke about her own struggles with addiction earlier in life — 28 years as an alcoholic and a 4½-year prison stint due to cocaine conspiracy charges. Though not an advocate for incarceration for drug problems, she did say her time behind bars led to her epiphany about how she wanted to change her life and she did get treatment in prison.
State Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, started the day’s speeches by talking about legislative efforts to address opioid use, a topic that hits home due to his 30-year-old daughter’s problems with drugs.
Previously convicted on narcotics offenses, Cassie Nygren of Green Bay is currently awaiting trial on several charges tied to delivering a mix of heroin and fentanyl to a pregnant woman who had a fatal overdose on June 2, 2017.
Author of numerous bills to address the state’s opioid crisis, Rep. Nygren said he wants to lessen the stigma of drug use so people don’t just dismiss it as people who made bad choices.
“We have seen overdose deaths from pretty much every age group in Wisconsin,” he said, including children and seniors.
It’s not just people going out to get illegal drugs, he added, but also seniors who are prescribed painkillers after receiving medical treatment and become addicted to them.
Rep. Nygren said his goal is zero overdose deaths, hoping the state can achieve that through addiction treatment, promoting alternatives to opioids for pain management and preventing people from abusing prescriptions or illegal drugs in the first place.
He admitted to the audience that the latter is the biggest hurdle, but also one that will produce the most success. Ways to improve prevention include encouraging physicians to prescribe fewer painkillers, improve mental health treatment and spot people at risk of addiction earlier in their lives, he said.
The state is also making Narcan — a drug used to treat overdoses — more readily available.
Local health departments have been buying their own supplies of Narcan in bulk to save money, but have seen some of their supplies expire due to the drug’s 18-month shelf life, Krupski said.
But in October, a statewide direct bulk-buying program will begin providing health departments with allocations of the drug — paid through grant money — which they can request, as needed, and get through two-day shipping.
“We’re going to prevent these providers from having to store thousands of doses of Narcan,” Krupski said.
Individuals who want Narcan handy also can get the drug without a doctor’s prescription at more than 300 pharmacies in Wisconsin — including CVS locations in the Chippewa Valley.
“The barrier that does still exist is you have to buy the drug,” Krupski said.
Doses of Narcan only cost a few dollars for people on government-run health insurance programs, but Krupski has heard that those with private insurance will have to pay $75 to $100 out of pocket for it.
While some programs are run statewide, Krupski said his department also provides funds to local departments so they can decide the best ways to treat drug issues in their communities.
“Our focus is still prevention,” said McKenzie Liegel, a population health service fellow for the Eau Claire City-County Health Department who coordinated Tuesday’s event.
The local strategy includes the Dose of Reality education campaign, drug take-back events, alliance groups that address youth and adult substance abuse, and a team of professionals that reviews overdose cases.
Gathering people from different professions together on Tuesday is also part of the preventative effort, Liegel said, so they can all discuss ways to work together on community problems with opioids and other drugs.