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GOP lawmakers object to Tony Evers' plan for spending opioid settlement funds

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Michelle with photos of Cade

Michelle Kullmann's son, Cade Reddington, died at age 18 in November from a drug overdose involving fentanyl, an opioid causing an increasing number of deaths. The Waunakee woman said campuses such as UW-Milwaukee, where Cade was a freshman, need to educate students more about the danger.

Republican lawmakers on Wednesday objected to a plan by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ administration on how to spend $31 million in opioid settlement funds this year as the state issued a public health advisory on fentanyl deaths, saying they nearly doubled over the past three years.

Evers criticized the objection by the state Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, saying the move could delay the state’s effort to combat the opioid epidemic.

“For these legislators to turn their backs on the people of Wisconsin, especially given increases in substance misuse and the mental and behavioral health challenges our state is facing today in the wake of the pandemic, it simply defies logic,” Evers said in a statement.

The committee objected to the state Department of Health Services’ plan to spend the money on boosting distribution of fentanyl testing strips and other efforts, leaving implementation of the plan in question. The $31 million is the first part of more than $500 million the state expects to get from opioid manufacturers and other parties over many years.

Finance committee leaders didn’t specify what the objection was in a letter to DHS or in a public statement, but suggested they will release a revised plan soon.

“We have been working with stakeholders to ensure that we are investing in impactful programs without duplicating our efforts,” said committee leaders Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, and Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam. “We will swiftly improve the plan to promptly distribute these funds to help combat the opioid crisis that continues to ravage our state.”

Wisconsin had 1,280 fentanyl overdose deaths last year, accounting for 91% of all opioid overdose deaths, up from 651 fentanyl deaths in 2019, the DHS public advisory said. Fentanyl and other potent synthetic opioids are increasingly showing up in other drugs, such as cocaine and counterfeit pills, the alert said. It can also be found in heroin, methamphetamine and even marijuana, officials say.

Health officials attribute the surge in opioid deaths, which has been seen nationally, to stress from the COVID-19 pandemic, an increase in synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and a rise in the use of multiple drugs at one time.

“A very, very tiny amount (of fentanyl), even as little as two grains of salt, is enough to kill,” Dr. Jasmine Zapata, a chief medical officer with DHS, said during a media briefing about the advisory. “Fentanyl is very hard to detect, so it can’t be smelled, tasted or even seen, and that makes it easy for it be placed in other types of drugs without the user’s knowledge.”

Zapata said the advisory was issued in connection with National Fentanyl Prevention and Awareness Day this coming Sunday. Paul Krupski, DHS’ director of opioid initiatives, said the advisory was in the works before the legislative objection to the DHS spending plan.

“We’re currently determining next steps,” Krupski said regarding the plan objection.

DHS submitted its initial opioid settlement spending plan for the year on April 1, as required, before the state knew how much money it would get in 2022. The Joint Finance Committee objected later in April, asking the agency to send a revised proposal when it knew the total funding, with amounts allocated to specific projects.

On July 28, DHS submitted a new plan, saying it was getting $6 million the next day and $25 million later this year. The plan called for initially spending $2 million on expanding fentanyl test strips and $3 million on boosting availability of the overdose-reversal drug naloxone, or Narcan.

Another $1 million would go to programs addressing root causes of substance abuse, such as housing and trauma recovery services.

Single-use fentanyl strips can be dipped into water containing a small sample from a pill, powder or injectable drug. Lines on the strips show the presence of fentanyl. The goal is to help drug users make informed decisions, such as using less of a drug or with someone else instead of alone.

Plans for spending the rest of the money included $11 million for helping to build or expand centers for treatment and other services and $6 million for tribal nations, with a breakdown by programs adding up to $31 million. The opioid death rate among Native Americans and Blacks is nearly double the state average.

The plan “identifies key areas where additional funding is needed to enhance our efforts to help people all across Wisconsin with opioid use disorder and to prevent future misuse, overdoses and deaths,” DHS Secretary Karen Timberlake said in a media briefing this month.

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