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Opioid Epidemic Deemed Public Health Emergency; Milwaukee County Hopes For More Funding

Sharyn Morrow, Flickr
Vicodin is one of the prescription painkillers that some people abuse before turning to heroin.

Milwaukee County is in the midst of an opioid crisis. City officials and medical professionals say the lack of available funds in Milwaukee County to address substance abuse can be a roadblock to creating effective treatment and education. 

On Thursday, President Donald Trump deemed the opioid crisis as a public health emergency and said that he plans to put a lot of time, effort and money into eliminating the crisis.

Last year, nearly 300 people died in Milwaukee County from drug overdoses. This year, the county is on track for a 25 percent jump in the number of deaths according to the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s office.

City and state officials across Wisconsin have been reaching out to the community through public forums, public service campaigns and the formation of the City-County Heroin, Opioid and Cocaine Task Force. Now, Alderman Michael Murphy says, Milwaukee County is thinking of taking legal action against pharmaceutical companies to combat the issue.

“As you can imagine the cost has been an enormous impact on the county, but certainly on the city also and, you know, there may be some legal argument that the pharmaceutical industries may be culpable in terms of their responsibility for this public health crisis,” Murphy says.

Those costs being families who have lost loved ones and costs to the taxpayers as a result of the epidemic.

Across the country, there’s a growing number of lawmakers taking steps to challenge pharmaceutical companies.

Dr. Sela Kurter, a Milwaukee area psychiatrist who has treated addiction patients.  He says “it's good that they’re trying to find out who was at fault, but unfortunately, at the same time, we are dealing with a crisis where people are dying daily.”

Kurter says the increase in powerful pain medication and cheap access to heroin and fentanyl are some of the reasons substance abuse has reached epidemic proportions. He hopes that President Trump deeming the crisis as a health emergency will mean more access to funding for treatment in Milwaukee County.

More money for treatment is something Mayor Tom Barrett hopes for as well. Mayor Barrett says it’s an important first step to address this nationwide epidemic, and important for Milwaukee County.

 “I’m optimistic about the intention of the order and now for it to be a game changer on this issue we really need the federal government to step up again and provide some funding so that we can use it for prevention and treatment.”

As far as the lawsuits against the pharmaceutical companies, Barrett says he supports the idea and is ready to sign off. Lawsuits could apply pressure on the companies to be more responsible in how they dispense these drugs.

“The fact that we’ve got over 270 who’ve died from drug overdoses this year tells you how significant this problem is. That’s more than double, almost triple the people who have died from homicides in the city of Milwaukee so this is a very serious public health epidemic,” he says.

Mayor Barrett says the city-county task force has developed a set of goals to help address the opioid problem in Milwaukee County, which include making sure there’s access for safe medication disposal, treatment for people who use drugs and making sure medications that lead to addiction aren’t being overly prescribed. 

Teran is WUWM's race & ethnicity reporter.
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