At a Wednesday press conference with representatives from area law enforcement and drug treatment agencies -- many in colored name tags meant to correspond to their roles in the initiative -- Dane County Executive Joe Parisi and Madison Mayor Paul Soglin unveiled a joint collaborative initiative to address the growing problem of opiate addiction and the corresponding overdoses and accidents that have reached "epidemic proportions" in the area.
According to data released at the press conference (PDF) by the Dane County Narcotics and Gang Task Force, police reports of drug overdoses and deaths have increased over the past five years, especially with heroin. So far in 2011, heroin overdoses in Dane County have already more than doubled the number of incidents in all of 2009 in Dane County.
Between 2006 and 2010, almost 7,000 people were hospitalized due to poisoning, with 67% of the cases being caused by prescription, over-the-counter and illicit drugs. Between 2005 and 2009, poisoning surpassed motor vehicle accidents as the primary cause of injury death in the area. Over that period, there were 282 deaths by poisoning, including overdoses.
"This is not a law enforcement problem," said Soglin. "This is not a public health problem. This is not a problem just for physicians or pharmacists. It is a problem that confronts all of us."
Opiate addiction affects people across the socio-economic spectrum. Not only is addiction fostered through the illegal sale of heroin, but also from the over-prescription of legal medications such as OxyContin and Vicodin. Unable to renew prescriptions after withdrawal side-effects, some patients turn to heroin as it is cheaper and easier to obtain.
"The medical community does a great job responding to pain management," said Cheryl Wittke, executive director of Safe Communities. "But it's a double-edged sword. There are insurance dynamics where doctors don't want to have patients paying for double rounds of medication, so they prescribe 30 pills instead of 10."
Detailing the coordinated response, Wittke unveiled a chart of six areas of focus (PDF), divided into the main concerns of supply and demand, that will be addressed in the coming months.
"Over the next six months, we will be forming work groups to come up with strategies and recommendations to prevent supply and demand, which we will then cross-fertilize between organizations to come up with the best solutions," said Wittke. "We will then have a summit in January where we will take all the recommendations and move forward on them. Three months after that, we will plan on bringing a report back to the community on how things are going, and what our next steps will be."
With the involvement of Dane County's Gang & Narcotics Task Force and Chemical Dependency Consortium, the ultimate goal is to not only limit the distribution and availability of opiates, but also to help those who have fallen victim to severe addiction.
"I want people out there to know that if you are addicted, are afraid you might be addicted, or know someone who is addicted and needs help, that you can get help by calling the Journey Mental Health Center at 280-2720," said Parisi.
But Amy Mosher-Garvey, co-owner of the Women and Families Psychological Services LLC, called attention to the challenges involved in seeking help for addiction in the area.
"Realistically, you could call someone today and set up an appointment," she said. "But residential programs aimed at taking people out of toxic environments have very long waiting lists. Some have three-month waiting lists, some have six-month waiting lists depending on funding."
Parisi and Soglin are proposing in their budgets a total of $78,276 for the joint initiative to counter opiate abuse and addiction.