Today, the state health department submitted their spending plan for reducing drug overdoses to the state’s budget committee.
This year’s $8 million dollars, recouped from major drug manufacturers and distributors, will go toward harm reduction programs and substance prevention education throughout the state.
That’s as opioid overdose deaths have continued to climb for the past decade. In 2020, 1,231 people died of an overdose death, an increase of over 30% from the previous year. And those numbers grew again to another record high in 2021, which saw 1,427 deaths.
Opioid overdose deaths are increasingly being driven by potent synthetic opioids, largely fentanyl.
According to state data , nine out of ten of 2021 opioid deaths involved synthetic opioids.
The state health department is still calculating overdose deaths for last year, says Paul Krupski, director of opioid initiatives for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. He says the opioid epidemic isn’t slowing.
“This goes back to the start of the pandemic,” Krupski says. “The challenges that people faced due to the pandemic, where we just saw more substance abuse in general across the country to deal with all the challenges and the stress that came along with that. Along that same time frame, that’s when fentanyl, which was already introduced to the drug market, was becoming prevalent.”
Last year, the state justice department announced they had come to a $400 million settlement agreement with major pharmaceutical distributors and manufacturers for their role in stoking the opioid epidemic.
That settlement resolved the nearly ninety individual lawsuits from municipalities, counties, and sovereign nations that sued to recoup their costs spent in public health to prevent and treat opioid addiction and overdoses.
Those distributors – Cardinal, McKesson, and AmericsourceBergan – will make payments to the state for eighteen years.
Manufacturer Johnson & Johnson will pay the state over the course of nine years.
Wisconsin is slated to receive around $8 million this year from the companies by the end of July. Under state law, 30% of that money will go to the state, and 70% will go to local and county governments.
To decide on how to use the $8 million dollars, Krupski says they sent out a survey to both people and organizations directly impacted by the opioid epidemic.
“We had a very robust response to the survey this year, with over 4,000 Wisconsinites responding,” Krupski says. “Individuals who responded included people who worked across the continuum of care, from prevention to harm reduction to recovery, but also those that work in children and family services, law enforcement, first responders, people with lived experience, and loved ones who support those with substance use disorder.”
About half of the money will continue to fund existing harm reduction programs across the state. Those include making both Narcan and fentanyl testing strips available for free through local community providers, EMS, and law enforcement.
Earlier today, the Food and Drug Administration approved the over-the-counter sale of Narcan nasal spray. The product, which reverses opioid overdoses when administered, is expected to be on shelves by late summer.
It’s the first overdose-reversing drug to be approved without a prescription. And while the change has been welcomed, some overdose prevention advocates warn that the cost of Narcan could be too expensive for some.
Krupski says that’s why it’s still so important for governments to distribute Narcan, too.
“Now that Narcan is more easily available, since it’s over the counter,” Krupski says, “there is still going to be a cost associated with that. When you compare that to our Narcan Direct Program, we want to continue to support all of our community providers (and) law enforcement agencies, and all the other organizations that are partners with us in that program, because that still provides an avenue for individuals and communities across Wisconsin to get Narcan for free.”
Another $3 million dollars in the plan would go to helping providers across Wisconsin upgrade their facilities. Specifically, DHS would award one or two grants to prevention, harm reduction, or recovery services statewide, specifically eyeing areas currently lacking providers.
In a 2020 assessment of harm reduction and prevention services in Wisconsin, DHS highlighted swaths throughout the state where they found high rates of opioid overdoses without reasonable access to Narcan or syringe services.
Krupski says that this year’s funding would go to both upgrading existing facilities and building new ones.
The final part of the spending plan would fund educational initiatives for substance use prevention, in conjunction with the state Department of Public Instruction. $1 million dollars will fund prevention programs and curricula for public, private, and charter schools across the state.
According to a 2021 survey, around 11% of Wisconsin high school students had taken prescription pain medication at least once without a prescription. This new programming would, DHS says, reduce the likelihood of a student’s future substance use.
The plan next goes to the state’s joint finance committee, who have 14 days to either approve the plan, or raise an objection. If an objection is raised, the committee would work with DHS to update and resubmit the plan for approval.
Last August, the finance committee blocked a similar opioid settlement plan. The plan was eventually approved about two weeks later with minimal changes, reports the Capital Times.
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