Police, health experts: Heroin epidemic growing in Dane County

The number of heroin overdose calls in Dane County have skyrocketed in the past few years, according to the Madison Police Department.

“Three years ago, in 2013, we were at 158 overdoses and then last year in 2016, we were at 495,” Officer Dan Swanson said.

Swanson works with MPD Special Investigation Unit and tracks the number of overdose responses daily. He said the department has already received 50 call this year, three of which were fatal.

“We’re only in March right now, but if you look back at March of last year, January to March, I would say we have more at this point than we did at that point,” Swanson said.

He said there could be a number of reasons for the spike in users, but one is more commonly linked than others.

“A lot of people point back to just the availability of pain narcotic prescription drugs,” Swanson said.

Medical director for UW Pain Services, Dr. Alaa Abd-Elsayed confirmed that is a large part of it.

“I think there should be awareness among people and healthcare providers about keeping things in balance. Not going an extreme of either over-prescribing or under-prescribing,” Adb-Elsayed said.

Several health providers, like UW Health, are working with local law enforcement to find a solution.

“Something has to change. What we’re doing is not working,” Swanson said.

They hope new programs will provide some relief.

“Education, of course, cutting down the sources of those drugs so they are not easy to obtain,” Adb-Elsayed said.

Abd-Elsayed said they are regularly working on new treatment plans, but that many heroin users are not seeking recovery. Even if they do, he said they typically relapse.

MPD is hoping to change that through their new program, Madison Addiction Recovery Initiative (MARI).

“The paradigm is shifting nationally. Instead of a response where we’re criminalizing this activity of heroin use, we’re looking more for treatment options,” Swanson said.

The use of heroin is a felony in Wisconsin, and the response has been to arrest users.

“The problem with that, as you can see, is that doesn’t work. The numbers still skyrocket,” Swanson said.

MARI will be introduced into training at MPD starting this month. More than 400 officers will learn how to handle overdose cases and not turn to arrest.

“There’s a bottleneck for people to get treatment, so for instance, if you have health insurance and you’re addicted to heroin and you want treatment, the average time frame that you have to wait is about 90 days in Dane County,” Swanson said.

The new goal is to work with public healthcare and treatment facilities to begin treatment for users within 24 hours of the overdose response.

“People who use heroin, they don’t have 90 days. They live hour by hour,” Swanson said.

Abd-Elsayed is looking forward to working with MPD to diminish the epidemic, but said there is a shortage of those who can contribute.

“The number actually is not as large as compared to the problem. We don’t have many of them and definitely need more. That’s something where the problem is the access, because you have too many patients and few providers.

MPD is still planning to pursue their new procedure, and hopefully have it implemented by June 1.

“Any little bit helps. Every life you can impact to get into treatment is a life saved,” Swanson said.