Late last month, a child was found unconscious in his Milwaukee-area home. The boy had accidentally swallowed an oxycodone pill from his mother’s purse while she slept. His mother found him after she woke up, something the two-year-old would never do again. The cause of the death was opioid overdose.
Opioid painkillers such as oxycodone, hydrocodone and methadone are prescription drugs used to relieve pain. Opioids can come in illegal forms, such as heroin.
Accidental death by opioid overdose is a common occurrence and a serious problem in Wisconsin and throughout the country. In the past decade, Wisconsin deaths from heroin overdose have increased 880 percent, according to the state DHS. During the same period between 2006 and 2015, fatal overdoses from prescription painkillers doubled to 26 percent.
This addiction knows no bounds, no specific demographic and its destruction reaches every corner of Wisconsin. A well-used statistic in the state explains more Wisconsin citizens died in 2014 from overdoses than car crashes.
To address the continuously increasing number of lives lost due to opioid and heroin addiction throughout the state, Gov. Scott Walker declared the opioid epidemic as a public health crisis last month. Walker signed three executive orders and 12 bills into action, which support 17 existing laws written by Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, to battle the epidemic.
The executive orders came in response from recommendations from his Opioid Task Force, headed by Nygren and Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch. The Task Force was created to work with agency heads, advocacy groups and the numerous stakeholders affected to find ways to get more addicts access to treatment and end the stigma associated with addiction.
Nygren is seen as the state’s leader in the fight against the opioid epidemic. His own daughter battled with heroin addiction. He would read overdose obituaries and hear of people he went to school with struggle with addiction and thought it was time to use his family story to make a difference.
In 2013, Nygren started the Heroin, Opioid Prevention and Education Agenda. Through the HOPE Agenda, Nygren brought attention to a prominent national and statewide problem that was overlooked. To combat Wisconsin’s heroin problem, Nygren worked on bills that addressed the root cause of prescription drug abuse.
While the HOPE Agenda hears from stakeholders, the Task Force, comprised of 20 individuals in backgrounds such as law, justice, medicine and addiction treatment, focuses on bringing each member’s niche to the table to discuss ways to solve the epidemic.
The dangers of prescription painkillers
Many legislators involved in this epidemic have an anecdote of a child, sometimes as young as nine, using drugs taken out their parents’ medicine cabinet.
Although this problem is not reserved for a particular demographic, teens and young adults are the largest section dealing with opioid addiction, most commonly starting with prescription drugs and escalating into a full-blown heroin addiction.
Addictions don’t always start from stealing drugs. It can start from being legally prescribed a drug like hydrocodone or vicodin after getting wisdom teeth pulled or a sports injury. Or maybe someone gives their friend who just pulled a muscle some pills from an older prescription. These types of innocent scenarios account for 80 percent of addictions.
“We want people to know that opioids, though they are prescribed by doctors, can be very dangerous,” Kleefisch said.
Kleefisch told The Daily Cardinal this epidemic has gotten so bad that realtors are considered a stakeholder group since addicts will attend open houses to rifle through people’s medicine cabinets and drawers to locate extra prescriptions.
A problem far from solved
Wisconsin’s battle against opioid and heroin addiction is currently the most bipartisan movement in state legislature. Nygren refers to the Task Force as “all hands on deck from a legislative standpoint.”
“I have not seen any effort get as much support as anything like this has in my 10 years,” Nygren told The Daily Cardinal. “The reason why I think it’s gotten such support is that these issues are hitting home in all parts of Wisconsin.”
But despite the effort put forth by the Task Force, Walker’s executive orders and the laws already in place, hundreds of children, teens, adults and elders keep dying.
Critics say the state has a lot more work to do, especially in terms of prevention methods.
“We know that this is a big problem that is going to take multiple and aggressive rounds of solutions, month after month, sometimes for years until we tackle it,” Kleefisch said.
Some rural districts have issues implementing the Task Force’s recommendations due to a lack of resources to treat addicts.
State Sen. Janet Bewley, D-Ashland, who is also on the Task Force, explained that rural districts like her own require far more than the first bundle of bills signed last month.
“If you’re in a rural area and your county literally doesn’t have somebody who does addiction counseling, or somebody who does a treatment program for youth, well I guess [addicts] are going to have to go through the court system,” Bewley said.
With a lack of treatment options, preventing people from their first time abusing drugs is the most important, and fastest, way to prevent a drug-related death.
A reason for optimism
The opioid and heroin crisis is not an easy thing to measure. But there are some indicators that Wisconsin’s situation has improved since 2013. In the first year when a law that made Narcan, an opioid antagonist that stops an overdose, available to first responders, there was an estimated 4,000 admissions of Narcan statewide. Not all of those admissions saved lives, but it did help many that otherwise would have died.
A prevention measure that will officially be in place this April is a prescription drug monitoring program that requires doctors to register when a patient gets a prescription, or requests a prescription, into a database.
This system is already unofficially in place. Between 2015 and 2016, the amount of opioid medication prescribed in Wisconsin went down 10 percent.
“That’s 80 million fewer addictive pills available for someone with an addiction or somebody that might be redistributing them to others for sale,” Nygren said.
The co-chairs of the Task Force have also recommended to have UW System charter a recovery high school so young people struggling with addiction can receive treatment while receiving an education.
“The long term goal is to prevent relapse. As research shows, the frequency of relapse for students who go back to their traditional school setting can be over 50 percent,” said Gary Bennett, director of UW’s Office of Educational Opportunity in a statement. “Frequently because their social contacts might have been users, their distribution point could probably be on or near campus, so they need that disruption to continue recovery."
There is currently a recovery high school already in Madison, which is also the last remaining recovery school in the Midwest.
Traci Goll has been the director of Horizon High School, a private non-profit recovery school, for the past 11 years. The school mixes daily activities about sobriety and mental health with academic curriculum for students who actively want to stay sober.
“They come so beaten down, so depressed, feeling like the biggest failures,” Goll said. “When they come to Horizon we work really hard every day to make them know they’re worthy of a sober life. They’re not bad people, they’re kids who have a disease and are often really misunderstood.”
Horizon, however, is completely reliant on donations and constantly struggles to keep its doors open.
The UW-facilitated charter school would differ from Horizon by utilizing public school finances and Medicaid dollars for funding.
“It’s been a really great example of the Capitol and UW working together to meet a very serious crisis,” Bennett said.
Although it seems like there’s hope for the future, for many legislators, administrators, officials, victims, friends and family who have had to bury their loved ones much too soon, the battle against opioids wages on.