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Wisconsin hears ideas on how to spend $420 million in opioid settlement funds

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Drug overdose flags

White flags along Atwood Avenue, lining Olbrich Park, memorialize people who have died from drug overdoses, mainly opioids. 

More subsidized housing for people recovering from opioid addiction, expanded availability of the overdose-reversal drug Narcan and mobile treatment units in rural areas would be good ways to spend Wisconsin’s anticipated $420 million in opioid settlement funds, addiction experts said Wednesday.

Medication-assisted treatment — taking medications such as Suboxone or methadone, along with counseling, to reduce opioid dependency — works well, said Amanda Dinger, a substance abuse counselor in Tomah.

“The problem is, in a rural community, we can’t get to it,” Dinger said. “Transportation is always an issue.”

At the first of a dozen online listening sessions about how Wisconsin should spend its opioid settlement funds, Dinger and others told state officials that mobile units to deliver medication-assisted treatment to people who need it would be a big help.

Though amounts aren’t finalized, the state expects to get roughly $420.2 million over 18 years as part of a $26 billion deal with opioid manufacturer Johnson & Johnson and distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson. Seventy percent of the funds will go to 87 local governments involved in the litigation and 30% will go to the state Department of Health Services.

Plans for how to spend the money come as Wisconsin has faced record opioid overdose deaths amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The state had 1,226 such deaths in 2020, 34% higher than any previous year, including 123 in Dane County. As of Wednesday, 970 opioid overdose deaths had been reported statewide for 2021, with the tally expected to increase considerably over the next several months as more reports come in.

Listening sessions seeking input on how the state health department should spend its $126 million or so share of the settlement will continue Friday and later this month. At the first two sessions Wednesday, about 20 people shared ideas.

Kimberly Hill, with Southwest Community Action Program, said the agency has set up two recovery houses for people in Dodgeville and is working on a third in Richland Center, with help from a UW School of Medicine and Public Health grant.

But Hill said those places aren’t enough. “There’s such a need for rural recovery,” she said.

Marcia Galvan, with the Southwest Wisconsin Workforce Development Board in Janesville, said helping with housing and other costs, such as child care, can help people afford addiction treatment amid inflation.

“Cost of living, cost of treatment, cost of literally everything is through the roof,” she said. “Recovery can be unattainable to individuals based on that solely.”

Sober living arrangements are especially needed for parents with young children, Galvan said.

Karen Morris, a nurse who reviews deaths among women who die during pregnancy or within a year after giving birth for the state and the UW medical school, said substance abuse is an increasing contributor to maternal mortality. Decriminalizing substance abuse, and not taking children away from women who are in recovery because of substance abuse, would help, she said.

Dr. Chris Eberlein, an emergency medicine provider with Gundersen Health System in La Crosse who is on the state’s Emergency Medical Services Board, said funding should continue to make Narcan accessible to reverse overdoses.

“I think we underestimate the number of lives that have been saved by that program,” Eberlein said.

Several speakers said Narcan should be available in more public places, including bars. Some noted that methamphetamine abuse is also a big challenge, and others said more detox services are needed.

“When somebody comes in and says I want to go to detox, and detox is full, what can we do in the meantime?” asked Anneliese Skoda, a substance abuse counselor with La Crosse County Human Services.

Marcy Nerby, a nurse from River Falls who works at Pierce County’s behavioral health unit, said she lost her husband to an overdose. He died at age 40 in November 2020, according to his obituary. Nerby said he took what he thought was a benzodiazepine, or tranquilizer, but it was laced with opioids.

Nerby said she’s struggling to find help for her two children to deal with the loss, and urged more spending on such services.

“There isn’t any in-person support groups for kiddos,” she said. “I would like to see that as something that would be very helpful for my kids.”

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