Wisconsin Opioid Settlement Funds Come Through As Overdose Numbers Keep Climbing

February 1, 2023

As the federal government begins to allocate millions of dollars in opioid settlement funds and states must make decisions about how best to use the one-time payouts, opioid drug deaths continue to rise, according to state and local officials.

More than 1,400 people died from opioid overdoses across the state of Wisconsin in 2021, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported. In Milwaukee County, the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office documented 523 drug-related deaths in 2022. Karen Domagalski, the office’s operations manager, told the Wisconsin Examiner that the cause of death for an additional 318 cases as of 2022 is still pending. “Not all of the pending cases will be overdose deaths,” Domagalski said. So far, there are already 67 deaths for 2023.

As with much of the United States, overdose deaths in Milwaukee have risen steadily in recent years. In 2021, 644 residents in the county died from drug-related causes, an all-time record that overshadows the previous year’s record tally of 544 deaths.

Fentanyl analogues continue to drive the death wave. According to DHS, 91% of opioid overdose deaths nationwide involve synthetic drugs, primarily fentanyl. Some types of fentanyl can be up to 15 times more potent than heroin.

Interactive maps produced annually by the Wisconsin Examiner show that unadulterated heroin is all but non-existent in Milwaukee County. Cocaine-related deaths are also increasing, particularly among younger populations, due to fentanyl contamination, according to data from the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Approximately $8 million will be made available to support existing or new harm reduction projects statewide as part of a multistate settlement of a lawsuit against companies involved in the manufacture and distribution of opioid drugs. Potential applications include increasing the availability of fentanyl test strips or the anti-overdose drug Narcan. There are also suggestions for expanding treatment options. DHS is also accepting ideas from the public on how to spend the funds through February 17, including through a poll available in both English and Spanish.

“The responses we received from the public and partners during listening sessions over the past year have reminded us that opioid use disorder treatment in communities does not fit one size fits all,” said Paul Krupski, DHS director of opioid initiatives, in a press release . “Our plan reflects the specific needs of Wisconsinites, and we intend to use the feedback from this year’s survey to do the same.”

The settlement funds flowing from lawsuits against major pharmaceutical distributors, including Cardinal, McKesson, AmisourceBergen, Johnson & Johnson and others, will continue for 18 years. Johnson & Johnson’s payments will continue for another nine years.

The lawsuits charged that companies like Purdue Pharma, owned by the mega-wealthy Sackler family, fueled the overdose crisis for years, which makes drugs like Oxycotin, with companies like Walgreens and others accused of being distributors. However, Purdue Pharma’s gradual demise has done little to stem the still-evolving epidemic. Compensation funds have been envisioned as a step to reverse the societal damage these corporations have wreaked.
Through the State Department of Justice (DOJ), Wisconsin was among the states participating in the litigation.

“The funds that the Wisconsin DOJ has helped secure opioid companies will help communities across Wisconsin fight the opioid epidemic,” said Attorney General Josh Kaul. “The contributions of those affected by the epidemic will help maximize the good that these funds can do for Wisconsinites.”

A plan for the use of the funds was presented by the DHS to the state’s Joint Finance Committee in July 2022. The plan included support for data collection, surveillance, prevention, harm reduction, treatment, recovery, capital projects and tribal nation funding.

The Republican-controlled committee approved a modified version of the $31 million plan. Approximately $250,000 will be allocated for school-based prevention programs and an additional $750,000 for community intervention programs. The Narcan Direct program will be supported with $3 million and $2 million will support a fentanyl test strip program. Medication-assisted treatment programs will receive $2 million, and an additional $2.5 million will support room and board costs for Medicaid members in residential treatment programs. An overdose alert system will be launched with $500,000, with $6 million going to tribal communities and $3 million to law enforcement.

In the second year, the funding can be used for existing programs or for new projects. “Right now we have about $20 million,” Krupski said at a Jan. 26 news conference. The department will be accepting applications in the coming months.

DHS received $16.9 million from the State Opioid Response Grant Program in fiscal year 2022, according to Wisconsin Public Radio. The Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians also received $238,700 and the St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin received $500,000.

Some local areas are already trying new ideas. By summer, vending machines with fentanyl test strips, gun locks, and Narcan will be deployed in Milwaukee County. Residents can get their supplies from the vending machines free of charge. The county also has treatment facilities, including inpatient and medically assisted treatment options for its residents.

In 2020, the area around a drug-assisted treatment facility in West Allis recorded fewer overdose deaths than a year earlier. However, the county’s treatment and prevention apparatus has been described as underfunded and fragmented. An analysis by the Wisconsin Policy Forum recommended that the county invest in treatment options.

“Deaths from opioids are preventable,” Krupski said. “We look forward to hearing ideas on how this next round of settlement funds can be used towards that goal.”

The Wisconsin Examiner, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news site, offers a fresh perspective on state politics and politics through investigative reporting and daily reporting dedicated to the public interest. The Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers.

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