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Wisconsin Department of Health Services lays out plan to fight growing opioid overdoses


Before the pandemic, opioid overdose deaths were on the downturn in Wisconsin.

2018 saw 10% fewer deaths than 2019. Then the pandemic hit, and opioid overdose deaths shot up to a record 1,227.

“The COVID-19 pandemic saw rapid growth in the availability of synthetic opioids like fentanyl and an increase in use of many drugs at one time is also believed to be responsible for the increase in overdose deaths. We need to take critical action now to save lives,” said Department of Health Service Secretary Designee Karen Timberlake.

DHS has already received $6 million to help save those lives. It’s money from the national prescription litigation settlement.

The state expects to receive nearly $31 million before the years’ end.

“Those efforts to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable as well as our continuing efforts to investigate opioid manufacturers are beginning to lead to real results and real dollars coming to the state of Wisconsin. And it’s critical that we hold these opioid companies responsible,” said Attorney General Josh Kaul.

The Department of Health Services plan to fight the opioid epidemic is broken into three phases, the first of which addresses immediate needs and harm reduction strategies.

Under this phase, $3 million will go towards the Narcan Direct program. $2 million for fentanyl test strip distribution, and $1 million for grants that will address root causes opioid misuse.

“We know that we save lives every time, or virtually every time, that someone who is at risk of an overdose is administered Narcan. Fentanyl test strips were preventing an overdose by allowing someone who may be using drugs to know whether that drug is contaminated with fentanyl,” said Timberlake.

Phase two will put $11 million towards capital improvement projects.

This will help improve existing treatment facilities as well as build new ones in areas of the state without them.

Also under phase two, $6 million dollars will go toward tribal nations within the state.

“Tribal nations also urgently need this funding as they have seen a dramatic increase in opioid deaths that has caused at least three tribes to declare states of emergencies in response to the rise in substance use and opioid epidemic,” said Timberlake.

Those three tribes are Bad River, Lac du Flambeau, and Menominee.

Phase three makes long-term project investments like the DHS overdose and alert system, school education programs, and medicated treatment assisted program expansion.

Timberlake is confident in these strategies working together.

“We saw a downturn in deaths and overdoses just before the pandemic. In 2018, opioid-overdose deaths decreased by 10% compared to the prior year, but then increased significantly in 2020 to a record high 1,227. Sadly that’s 1,200 lives lost to something preventable and treatable,” said Timberlake.

The plan still needs to be approved by the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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