City Home to First- Ever ‘Heroin Summit’
Left, Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen speaks to leaders from Wood and Portage counties about the state’s growing heroin problem. (Contributed photo)
“We’re finding people dead still with the needle in their arm.” Chief Kevin Ruder
By Brandi Makuski
Leaders in Stevens Point hosted 25 individuals from various professions for the area’s first- ever Heroin Summit.
The meeting was held with no publicity in early March and only came to light after the group jointly submitted an open letter to area media. Among the attendees were elected officials from throughout Portage and Wood counties as well as physicians, pharmacists and legal professionals.
“Information- sharing was the most powerful thing I think we all came away with,” said Stevens Point Police Chief Kevin Ruder. “We noticed Marshfield had a series of overdoses; the last one here involved a pre-med student. We determined we needed more brains working together as a team trying to figure out what all the players were doing in the area.”
“Every Monday we have a staff meeting with all department heads,” said Mayor Andrew Halverson. “Every Monday I’d be hearing about overdoses, fatalities associated with overdoses, or more importantly near- misses that happen almost weekly. It gets you scared when you hear about the frequency of these things and that it’s always- seemingly- heroin.”
Ruder said after months of considering their options, he and Halverson asked Wood County representatives to attend the meeting, which included a frank roundtable discussion as well as presentations from Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen and UW-Madison Chief of Police Susan Riseling.
“(Riseling) said they did some research with their HMO and found a direct correlation between prescription pain medication and heroin,” Ruder said. “They found there were some dentists prescribing 80 milligram Oxycodone, which is designed for end-of-life care, and so the university had it removed (from insurance coverage).”
Over-prescribing painkillers, he said, can lead to addiction- one that is replaced with street drugs like heroin when the prescription can’t be refilled.
“We found that 40 percent of all Americans are taking medication for chronic pain- that’s an alarming statistic,” Ruder said. “When you consider the link between prescription pain meds and heroin use- that’s alarming as well. We’re finding people dead still with the needle in their arm.”
“But ironically the world of medicine has solved their side of the crisis, to a degree,” said Halverson. “It’s very difficult for an addict to walk into an ER and get pain medication. There are so many steps an ER physician goes through to determine if there’s an addiction situation and not a legitimate pain issue.”
Halverson said discussion during the summit uncovered gaps for responsibly issuing prescriptions within the medical community- a problem he says rests largely with some dentists and general practitioners.
“There’s an issue with dentists making these prescriptions and folks finding a way to get addicted,” he said. “Heroin is easier to get a hold of; it’s cheaper and it’s violently more dangerous. It’s easier to find heroin these days than to get a prescription, in many ways.”
Halverson said while the summit was a big deal, there were a number of reasons the summit wasn’t publicized. The date of the meeting seemed to coincide with the overdose death of actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and those hosting the summit didn’t want it associated with the actor’s death.
“We needed to be able to think about where we were going to go, as a region, with this problem. Then all of a sudden Phillip Seymour Hoffman OD’s and dies, and I didn’t want that to become the thought that now it (heroin) has notoriety and this is the reason we’re doing it,” he said.
Halverson said “without question” Central Wisconsin is in the middle of a heroin epidemic.
“When you think of heroin you think of the 70’s: a burned out, low-income individual who’s a heroin junky. The heroin problem we have today is probably worse than what we had in the 70’s because the purity, the availability and the sheer fact it’s killing people at a significantly higher rate,
Halverson said. “Today it’s crossing all demographical lines; we’re seeing successful, academically- forward, responsible students are finding a way to get addicted to the heroin and they’re dying from it. That’s not the quintessential heroin junkie most people think about.”
While the first meeting focused on pooling information, Ruder said, the next one could provide a clearer path of action.
“Maybe a ‘scared straight’ tactic is the right way to go,” Ruder said. “Maybe a ‘before and after’ approach, showing somebody who weighs 70 pounds with health problems is what it’s going to take to make an impact on the younger people in our community, to show them how deadly this drug is.”