Aaron Dumas, a La Follette School student and project assistant for the Evidence Based Health Policy Project, organized a major statewide conference on opioid abuse with the project in mid-February.
The event, featured at the State Capitol, attracted 129 people, including several legislators, La Follette students and many state agency staff, academics, health officials and others. Two of the primary speakers included Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel and State Rep. John Nygren, co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee.
Immediately after the conference, Schimel said the Wisconsin Department of Justice would launch a program for law enforcement officers to safely dispose of opioid drugs. Schimel hinted at the announcement during the EBHPP briefing. He said combatting opioid abuse is the DOJ's top priority. During the last National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day, the federal government destroyed 617,000 pounds of prescription drugs, including more than than 34,000 pounds from Wisconsin, he noted.
"We're in a lot of trouble as a state and as a nation," Schimel said. "We've never seen anything like this in my 25 years of law enforcement and it's going to take all of us working together to get through this."
Other speakers also chimed in, according to this summary adapted from Wisconsin Health Notes:
Addressing the problem requires a multi-agency response, said Aaron Gilson, research program manager of the pain and policy study group at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
"Wisconsin is uniquely poised to take advantage of current data and collect new data," Gilson said. "We can actually harness our results and save people's lives using evidence."
Wisconsin's prescription drug monitoring program is working on integrating its data into electronic medical records to make it more available to prescribers, said program director Chad Zadrazil. The program has received a grant to work with Marshfield Clinic Health System on its emergency medical response and is in discussions with Epic Systems.
James Cleary, the study group's director, noted opiates, while not recommended, are prescribed for a "huge number" of headaches and nerve pain.
"We need to look very carefully at how we can reduce the amount of opioids that are out in the system without actually impacting the patients who need them," Cleary said.
Another major issue is access to naloxone, a medication used to quickly counter the effects of opioids after an overdose. Cynthia Gaston, a UW pharmacy clinic assistant professor, said naloxone is primarily prescribed by the emergency department at UW Health, but should be prescribed more, especially to individuals with a history of substance abuse. Naloxone does not increase misuse, and abusers are actually more likely to seek addiction treatment after naloxone administration.
Health-care institutions also need to standardize best practices for pain management, Gaston noted.
Naloxone needs to be available to people leaving prison upon release, said Scott Stokes, director of prevention services at the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin.
Stokes noted that needle exchange programs, originally intended to combat HIV among drug users, have reduced HIV infections significantly. But there is still a 20 to 30 percent infection rate for hepatitis C among drug users, and the costs for treating the disease are expensive.
Stokes is in long-term recovery from a heroin addiction, which drives his work.
"I've seen a lot of friends who have died from overdoses," Stokes said, "I've seen a lot of participants in our needle exchange program who haven't made it back through the doors."
Dumas, a dual public affairs-law degree student, says it was very satisfying to see the results of his work.
"A problem as serious and growing as opioid abuse needs attention from all quarters," Dumas says. "The EBHPP is the perfect tool to get the message out, and it is encouraging to see policymakers responding."
EBHPP is a joint project of the La Follette School, UW Population Health Institute, and the Wisconsin Legislative Council.
"For me, providing our lawmakers this invaluable type of decision support is a humbling responsibility, and a great reward of this PAship," Dumas says. "The even greater reward is working with and for the talented and dedicated people who do this full-time."