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The amount of opioids being prescribed by doctors in Wisconsin has declined from 2010 to 2015, but Racine County numbers remain high and there is still work to be done on the issue, say state officials. According to the Center for Disease Control, the morphine milligram equivalents per person was 640 per 100 people in the U.S. in 2015. But in Racine County, the morphine milligram equivalents per person ranged from 677 to 958 in 2015. Gov. Scott Walker issued a public health advisory in the fall to combat what has been deemed as an “escalating opioid epidemic,” which has hit Racine County hard.

Prescription Opioids Main Driver In Overdose Deaths, Poisonings

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, the rate of opioid prescription deaths in Racine County has increased to 15.3 per 1,000 residents in 2015 from 7.2, a 113 percent increase compared to the number in 2006. Hospital stays for patients encountering opioid issues in Racine County during that same time have also increased to 50.7 per 1,000 residents from 29.7, a 71 percent increase. “Prescription opioids have been the main driver of drug overdose deaths and poisonings,” according to a Wisconsin Department of Health Services report titled: Overview of Opioids Morbidity and Mortality in Wisconsin. “In 2015, the majority of opioid-related deaths (63 percent) in Wisconsin involved prescription drugs. Prescription opioid use is often the gateway to heroin use. Three out of four people who use heroin first use prescription opioids (CDC, 2016).” So why are Racine County numbers higher? According to the CDC, county-level factors associated with higher amounts of opioids prescribed include:
  • A greater percentage of non-Hispanic white residents.
  • A greater prevalence of diabetes and arthritis.
  • Micropolitan areas (non-metro small cities and big towns).
  • Higher unemployment.
“While some variation in opioid prescribing is expected and linked to factors such as the prevalence of painful conditions, differences in these characteristics explain only a fraction of the wide variation in opioid prescribing across the United States,” said Deborah Dowell, M.D., M.P.H., chief medical officer in the Division of Unintentional Injury Prevention at CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. “This variation highlights the need for healthcare providers to consider evidence-based guidance when prescribing opioids.”

State Rules Change Around Opioid Prescriptions

New state guidelines went into effect in May around how doctors can prescribe pain medications were put into place to combat opioid abuse and heroin addiction. Attorney General Brad Schimel said the state is headed in the “right direction” on opioid prescribing. Most people who abuse prescription opioids get them for free from a friend or relative, according to the CDC. In a press release, Schimel released the following statement:
“Responsible medical providers have recognized the role they play in reducing opioid dependence and have been a crucial partner in our state’s battle against drug abuse. Credit for recent success is also owed to Governor Walker, Lieutenant Governor Kleefisch, and our elected officials who, under Rep. Nygren’s leadership, have advanced the HOPE agenda, which is saving lives and transforming the way we think about addiction. I am confident law enforcement and Wisconsin’s political leaders, along with leading voices in the state’s medical community, will continue to have a profound impact on opioid abuse and make our state safer and stronger.”
  The new guidelines, set in place by the Wisconsin Medical Examining Board, challenged medical practitioners to make more informed decisions about acute and chronic pain treatment. However, the guidelines don’t apply to people in active cancer treatment, palliative care, or end-of-life care.  Opioids are a class of drug doctors use to sometimes manage pain. The drug class also includes the illegal drug, heroin.   Developed with the Center for Disease Control, the state guidelines outline several best practices for responsible prescribing, but Schimel said more work needs to be done. “There is still a lot of work to be done here in Wisconsin and I look forward to continuing the battle against these deadly drugs through enforcement actions and law enforcement trainings, and will carry on with successful prevention efforts like the Dose of Reality public awareness campaign and disposing of unused medications at biannual drug take back days, both of which are changing attitudes toward drug abuse and dispelling the myths about addiction,” he said. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction issues, please contact the Racine County Behavioral Health Services Department.    

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Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for Patch.com, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.