MILWAUKEE — Communities throughout the country are faced with the stark reality and repercussions of an opioid crisis turned epidemic.
Just last month, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services issued a public health advisory about the rampant opioid crisis, with more than 600 opioid-related deaths in the state last year. Non-violent drug offenders are being sentenced to prison at alarming rates, and families are being torn apart by this vicious addiction.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is it’s not too late to turn things around.
I’ve spent decades helping young, at-risk men and women create opportunities for themselves. I’ve helped many foster healthy and fulfilling lives while rejecting the expectation they will statistically wind up in jail someday. I’ve also helped offenders released from prison get back on their feet.
I’m encouraged by the leadership Wisconsin has shown in addressing this dependency issue: Gov. Scott Walker formed a bipartisan Task Force on Opioid Abuse last month, and last session the state Legislature passed a series of bills aimed at this public health crisis.
But much more must be done to help our most vulnerable citizens win their battles with addiction.
We need to provide strategic recovery counseling and treatment options to addicts. One way to do this is to reexamine our state’s use of medication assisted treatment. Addiction treatment providers are increasingly utilizing naloxone to counter overdoses. They use buprenorphine to help addicts stave off cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Pharmacological treatments have become standard practice for addiction therapy.
While addicts need greater access to medication assisted treatment, it’s important for our state not to perpetuate the problem.
Suboxone is the most commonly prescribed brand of buprenorphine. Because it is administered in film strip form, it’s increasingly being diverted and illegally resold.
Patients who are prescribed these strips can cut them up and sell them to non-intended users, who use them to bridge between highs. This diversion is creating a dangerous black market and providing addicts who aren’t ready for sobriety a way to continue funding their addiction.
These strips also have been confiscated from inmates after being sneaked into local correctional facilities, sometimes inside Bibles. So rather than kicking habits, the strips are nurturing them.
One possible solution is to replicate Maryland’s recent formulary change. Earlier this year, Maryland removed the strip form of buprenorphine from the state’s preferred Medicaid formulary. Instead, enrollees can now be prescribed a tablet treatment, which is much more difficult to divert, smuggle or misuse.
Our citizens deserve the best and most innovative treatment options. Wisconsin officials should consider Maryland as an example as they continue to fight this growing epidemic. Making a similar change is an important step forward in helping drug addicts help themselves.
I’m optimistic we can reduce opioid-related deaths in Wisconsin, and that addicts will receive the treatment they deserve and desperately need.