With people in Wisconsin dying from opioid overdoses at a record pace, the growing misuse of meth, cocaine and the tranquilizer xylazine — often with opioids — is making it harder to fight the epidemic, a federal health official said Tuesday.
“What we see is illicitly manufactured fentanyl really continuing to dominate the overdose crisis, but that most overdose deaths also involve other substances,” Dr. Yngvild Olsen, director of the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, said at an opioids, stimulants and trauma summit in Wisconsin Dells.
Olsen urged expanded use of fentanyl test strips, the overdose-reversal drug naloxone and medication-assisted treatment for addiction. She said most people who die from overdoses interact with providers in the months beforehand, but the vast majority of people with substance use disorder don’t seek treatment.
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“Missed opportunities happen all the time,” Olsen said at the event, organized by the state Department of Health Services.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who appeared by video, and Democratic Lt. Gov. Sara Rodriguez, who spoke at the event, criticized the Republican-controlled Legislature’s budget committee for stripping some addiction prevention, treatment and recovery programs from Evers' proposed budget this month.
Evers and Rodriguez also blasted the committee for objecting last month to the state health department’s plan for spending $8 million in opioid settlement funds the state expects to receive this year.
“We could be using these funds right now to help save lives,” Evers said. “This is a crisis that deserves bold and urgent action.”
The addiction programs were among more than 500 items the budget committee removed from the nearly $104 billion proposal Evers unveiled in February. GOP lawmakers plan to build their own two-year spending plan to send back to the governor before the end of June, as they have done with Evers’ previous two budgets. They retained other addiction programs.
Committee co-chairs Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, and Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, said “an objection was raised” to the settlement funds spending plan, without saying who was against it or why. They said a meeting would be scheduled to take up the matter.
On Tuesday, a spokesperson for Born declined to say when a meeting might be held, referring to an earlier statement from Born and Marklein that the "proposal for the new round of funding appears to invest in initiatives from the last round that have not yet proven effective. The committee will continue conversations with stakeholders to ensure these funds, which won’t arrive in the state until July, are put to the most effective use.”
The committee similarly rejected a $31 million spending plan last year before approving an adjusted plan. Of that money, some $10 million is being spent on upgrading or building new addiction treatment facilities, with $6 million going to tribal nations for prevention and treatment and $3 million going to law enforcement grants. Another $3 million is expanding availability of naloxone and $2 million is boosting distribution of fentanyl test strips.
Other efforts include $2.5 million to help pay for residential addiction treatment and $2 million to increase medication-assisted treatment, such as with buprenorphine, or Suboxone.
Wisconsin had a record 1,427 opioid overdose deaths in 2021, 16.3% more than the previous record in 2020 and more than double the toll from just six and seven years earlier, with fentanyl fueling much of the increase, officials said.
In Dane County, 139 people died from opioid overdoses in 2021, 13% higher than the previous record the year before.
Final numbers for 2022 won’t be available until fall, as it takes months for some reports to be processed. As of last week, a preliminary count of 1,318 opioid overdose deaths had been reported for last year, more than the preliminary total for 2021 as of early May last year.
In Dane County, the preliminary total for 2022 as of last week was 110, fewer than the preliminary total for 2021 at roughly the same time last year.
Olsen said the increasing misuse of stimulants such as methamphetamine, cocaine, Adderall and Ritalin, along with opioids, is complicating efforts to curb overdose deaths.
In March, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration issued an alert about a sharp increase in the trafficking of fentanyl mixed with xylazine, a tranquilizer used in veterinary medicine. “Xylazine is making the deadliest drug threat our country has ever faced, fentanyl, even deadlier,” DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said.
Olsen said methadone clinics are expanding, including one opening in Madison this month. It has become easier for doctors to prescribe Suboxone, and a form of naloxone, or Narcan, is expected to be available over the counter this summer.