- Associated Press - Monday, January 30, 2017

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Opioids are still killing people by the hundreds in Wisconsin even though legislators have passed nearly 20 bills to curb addiction over the last three years, prompting critics to demand lawmakers think bigger and pump more money into the fight.

Gov. Scott Walker has called a special legislative session to pass nearly a dozen additional bills designed to combat opioid addiction. Social justice groups and civil rights advocates say the package nibbles around the edges of the problem, threatens personal liberties and doesn’t invest nearly enough in prevention. Legislators have repeatedly said there’s no magic solution to stopping opioid abuse. Still, rumblings that the state needs to do more are growing louder.

Attorney General Brad Schimel, who is spearheading an awareness campaign called “Dose of Reality,” says people haven’t paid enough attention to the opioid issue and now it’s threatening to overwhelm the state.

“I get what the critics are saying,” Schimel said. “If we saw car crashes at the rate of opioid abuse, we would do crazy things. Build roundabouts every two miles, raise the driving age, lower speed limits. As a nation we’ve taken too long to take this epidemic seriously.”

The National Conference of State Legislatures says it tracked more than 500 state bills dealing with prescription drug abuse in 2016. Karmen Hanson, a program director at NCSL, says a similar number is expected this year.

Walker has signed 17 bills - all from state Rep. John Nygren, whose daughter has struggled with a heroin addiction - since 2013 to address opioids. Dubbed the HOPE Agenda, the bills include measures that require identification to pick up opioid prescriptions, provide immunity for people who report overdoses, create rural treatment programs, allow first responders to carry overdose antidotes and allocate $2 million annually toward treatment programs.

But people keep dying.

According to state data, 1,524 people died of opioid-related overdoses between 2013 and 2015 compared with 1,381 people over the previous three-year period. The data shows 622 people died in 2014 and 614 in 2015, the two highest annual death totals since 2003.

It looks like 2016 was no better. According to the most recent figures, 540 people died of opioid-related overdoses over the first nine months of last year alone. That’s almost 100 more people than during the first three quarters of 2015.

Walker this month declared opioid addiction a health crisis and called a special legislative session to enact 11 more bills.

The legislation would grant immunity to addicts who overdose; allow school nurses to administer overdose antidotes; allocate $420,000 annually for four more state Justice Department drug agents; lay out $200,000 over the next two years to expand a pilot drug screening program in high schools; and allow addicts to be civilly committed.

Critics aren’t impressed.

“The special session is a step in the right direction but falls far short of what is needed to make a significant dent in the opioid problem,” said Jon Peacock, Wisconsin Council on Children and Families research director.

Julie Whelan Capell runs the high school drug screening program in six school districts. The program could make a huge difference, she said, if Walker took it statewide. Legislative fiscal analysts project that would cost $1.8 million, but Capell said prevention is Wisconsin’s best hope. Robert Kraig, executive director of health advocacy group Wisconsin Citizen Action, complained the new bills spend more on drug agents than screening.

“This is an epidemic,” Kraig said. “We’re beyond pilot programs.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, meanwhile, contends the civil commitment bill would deprive opioid users of personal liberty without due process.

Nygren’s office didn’t respond to a message. Schimel said fighting opioids is difficult because they’re so pervasive. He cited statistics from the National Household Survey on Drug Use and Health that show about 163,300 Wisconsin adults and 68,600 young adults used heroin or another opiate between July 2013 and July 2014.

“Our treatment capacity can come nowhere near to addressing that,” he said.

Still, Walker’s call for a special session shows top government officials now understand the depth of the problem, Schimel said.

He said he wasn’t sure if expanding high school drug screening would be appropriate or effective. He noted that beginning April 1 doctors and dentists will have to consult a statewide prescriptions database to ensure patients aren’t shopping around for opioids, a Hope Agenda mandate. Schimel predicted the state will see a decline in opioid prescriptions after the requirement takes effect.

As for concerns about civil commitment for addicts, Schimel said a mental health facility would be a more humane place to go through withdrawal than jail. He promised addicts would still receive due process.

“There are things in (the special session legislation) that people don’t see as significant, but I do,” Schimel said. “We’ve got to keep beating this drum. This is the worst public safety and public health crisis we’ve seen in this state in many, many decades. Possibly ever.”

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Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1

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