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Oxycodone (copy)

Oxycodone is one of the most widely prescribed opioid painkillers. Narcan, or naloxone, is an overdose-reversing drug. 


Opioid prescriptions fell 20 percent in Wisconsin over the past three years, as doctors curbed painkiller orders amid soaring overdose deaths.

The decrease in opioids dispensed comes as doctors are scrutinizing their role in the nation’s opioid abuse epidemic, sometimes telling patients to use over-the-counter painkillers instead. The state last year required doctors to start checking a database of drugs previously given to patients, to prevent “doctor shopping” for narcotics.

“Wisconsin is committed to combatting the opioid crisis, and our latest report shows that our reforms are working,” Gov. Scott Walker said in a statement. “A 20 percent decrease in opioid prescriptions shows how seriously our prescribers and law enforcement take the opioid epidemic.”

Pharmacies dispensed about 4.1 million opioid prescriptions in 2017, down from 5.1 million in 2015, according to a report Friday by the state’s Controlled Substances Board.

The number of pills given out for two of the most widely prescribed opioids — hydrocodone-acetaminophen and oxycodone hydrochloride — dropped by about 24 percent combined, to 128 million pills in 2017 from 167.6 million in 2015.

Despite the drop in opioids dispensed, overdose deaths continue to climb. In Wisconsin, 827 people died from opioid overdoses in 2016, up from 614 in 2015, a 35 percent increase. The figure isn’t available for 2017.

The opioid abuse epidemic has led medicine to undergo a cultural shift. Two decades ago, pain was recognized as a vital sign, leading doctors to prescribe more painkillers. Now, in response to overdose deaths and opioid abuse, they’re holding back, sometimes recommending exercise, yoga or over-the-counter pain relief instead.

State and national guidelines encourage doctors to monitor patients on opioids with urine tests, make them sign treatment agreements and prescribe naloxone, the overdose-reversing drug, to patients on high doses of opioids.

At UW Health, opioid doses dropped 11 percent at clinics that paid special attention to urine drug testing and other monitoring of patients in 2016, while doses went up 8 percent at other clinics, a recent UW study found.

Last April, the state started requiring doctors to check the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program when prescribing narcotics and other monitored drugs. The database has been available since 2013.

The new report by the Controlled Substances Board said prescriptions of benzodiazepines — sedatives that can also be abused, often along with opioids — dropped 13 percent from 2015 to 2017.

However, prescriptions of stimulants went up 9 percent from 2014 to 2017, despite a slight decrease last year.


David Wahlberg is the health and medicine reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.