MILWAUKEE — With many of us stuck inside our homes for the last year and a half, the pandemic has forced families with loved ones struggling with addiction to face the issue.
Many may be realizing for the first time how serious the disease is, and how consumed their loved ones’ lives have become with drug addiction.
And the pandemic has not stopped the steady march of drug deaths in Milwaukee County either. The County Medical Examiner said this year the county is on pace to exceed the drug-related death total from 2020, which was a record-setting year.
Milwaukee County on track to exceed last year's record OD numbers: pic.twitter.com/bl5Zi6sPdN— Medical Examiner (@mkemedexamine) October 29, 2021
John Weitekamp is a pharmacist and a previous member of a state task force aimed at curbing drug abuse and expanding treatment options.
He lost his son Ben in 2015 to suicide after he struggled to find help.
“There is hope out there,” Weitekamp said. “There’s a lot of different resources that are out there that we can get. The hardest thing is finding them. The nice thing is today there’s a lot more resources than there were in 2015. People understand it.”
He was faced with his son’s addiction for the first time while on a family vacation. Ben started to detox on the trip.
“That was the big surprise,” he said. “I am a pharmacist. I should have realized something like that, but I had no idea.”
“I knew that kids do things,” he also said. “They’ll have a beer or alcohol things like that, but I didn’t think heroin. That was the last of my thoughts that he would be doing that.”
Weitekamp said his family struggled to find help that stuck, especially as Ben relapsed.
"There was Ben and there was heroin Ben,” he said. “Heroin Ben was really tough to deal with. Heroin Ben lied, cheated, did anything, manipulated. Regular Ben was a loving kid that you always knew.”
When he joined the task force after his son’s death, it was something he brought to the forefront of the discussion.
“Unfortunately a person with opioid or substance use disorder has three choices,” Weitekamp said. “The first one is recovery and getting better. The second one is death and the third one is incarceration. What I wanted to do, what I asked at one of the meetings, was how do we get the help or treatment before incarceration. Before incarceration, before overdose. That’s why we need the help.”
He says before COVID-19, other states were looking to Wisconsin as an example of public policy to fight substance abuse.
Rafael Mercado of Team HAVOC says the pandemic has now brought addiction to the forefront in many households, and those facing this problem for potentially the first time don’t know where to turn.
“We’ve seen a drastic turnaround like a 360 in our community where people didn’t admit someone, a loved one had an addiction,” Mercado said. “But since COVID and the lockdown, they had no choice but to see it and experience it and the calls we see now to go in-house to train an entire family.”
Mercado and his team help conduct “warm handovers” for those struggling with addiction to treatment centers to help get them the help they need. He says they work with the person struggling with addiction to realize it and choose treatment without the intervention of law enforcement.
But treatment is becoming harder to find.
“Waiting lines,” Mercado said. “There’s not enough.”
The I-Team reached out to a few providers about this claim. Rogers Behavioral Health says they are experiencing a “historic” level of demand for its inpatient programs, and “...unfortunately instances where we have to tell people we don’t have capacity to help right away, but we are still able to admit most within a few days." There is immediate availability for Mental Health and Addiction Recovery day treatment, and they are accepting patients quickly for residential care, though wait times vary.
Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division Administrator Mike Lappen told the I-Team, "There remains a shortage of residential beds in Milwaukee County and providers who accept people with Medicaid. In the field of SUD (substance use disorder), there is a shortage of staff, and for residential in particular, the third shift/overnight shift has been a challenge for which to hire.”
Another local provider confirmed it is also experiencing delays in its treatment programs. It was stressed that people who need help should still seek it out despite possible wait times.
Mercado says it’s one of several reasons why this issue needs attention and resources.
“There’s no money right now with COVID,” Mercado said. “If there’s funding, probably zero to nil.”
Milwaukee County Health and Human Services is proposing an increase of $1.5 million in tax dollars to continue paying for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse (AODA) Treatment, according to the proposed budget. Lappen told the I-Team the increase is in part due to changes to Medicaid funding. They are also waiting to hear back on grant awards for 2022.
In 2020, they recorded 6,224 detox admissions and enrolled 598 in recovery support coordination and 77 into its AODA residential program, according to county budget documents.
The county dollars go in part towards subsidizing rooms in treatment centers for uninsured patients.
The city of Milwaukee received a $1.2 million grant to fund the Milwaukee Overdose Response Initiative (MORI). The program is a partnership between the Milwaukee Fire and Health Departments aimed at helping connect victims of overdose with treatment options.
Firefighters and paramedics return to the scene of an overdose to educate the victim and family about what resources are available to the same people they saved, sometimes hours before.
Alderman Michael Murphy was part of the City-County Heroin, Opioid and Cocaine Task Force in 2018. Their recommendations led to MORI’s creation.
“We’ve had some very good success in that, and really saving lives because we’ve been able to get people into treatment and they’ve stayed in treatment,” Murphy said.
According to data from Alderman Murphy's office, from June 6 of last year until Sept. 26 of this year, 1,723 patients were identified by the program, and 517 were contacted. Fifty-two patients were referred to treatment.
MORI was paid for by a grant from the National Association of County and City Health Officials through September of this year. The health department is reapplying for the grant, and expects to get notice of a $500,000 award later this month.
The fire department has also submitted a proposal to the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) for the Comprehensive Opioid, Stimulant, and Substance Abuse Site-based Program (COSSAP) grant which would also fund the MORI program. If awarded, it would bring an additional $1.3 million to the initiative over a three-year period.
But outside of MORI, funds are harder to come by at the city level.
Last week the city of Milwaukee adopted its 2022 budget, and for the fourth straight year, the city allocated $25,000 for addiction treatment and prevention in the Milwaukee Health Department’s budget.
“Right now, the city doesn’t make a direct contribution substantially, in my opinion,” Murphy said.
Mercado added if used to pay for treatment, $25,000 wouldn't be enough to cover two patients' 30-day treatment.
In 2019, much of the money was spent on advertising and programming was held in 2020 due to the pandemic.
A health department spokesperson said this year the health department spent most of that money on things like drug test strips and NARCAN spray.
“I think of course we feel very limited,” said Aziza Carter, a public health strategist at the Milwaukee Health Department. “A lot of our funding, we rely on grant and federal funding.”
Carter is proud of the work they've done with MORI, as well as the limited funding they've been able to secure directly from the city. But the demand is growing, and there's more the department could be providing.
“I think if we had additional funding we would be able to expand our prevention and response efforts through MORI, but even go beyond that and really establish a comprehensive opioid response plan for the city of Milwaukee,” Carter said.
Still in the middle of securing funding, Carter says the health and fire departments will do what they need to in order to continue MORI, saying they'll find a way to keep it afloat if grant funding isn't secured right away.
"We need to provide these services at the current level so that we can respond to the opioid crisis appropriately and really engage with individuals who have been impacted by non-fatal overdoses," Carter said.
Lastly, Murphy said the city is planning on getting a large sum of money it can use to fund substance abuse prevention and treatment soon stemming from a lawsuit it won against pharmaceutical companies accused of starting the opioid epidemic through the overprescription of pain killers.
The actual dollar amount is to be determined, but once those funds are issued, he anticipates they will be used for addiction treatment and prevention programs.
“There are some programs that are out there that we know that are working, they just need additional resources to expand them because there’s such a great need and there’s not enough money to do all the things you want to do," Murphy said.
If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, here are a list of resources to get started looking for help:
- Milwaukee County 24-hour Crisis Line: (414) 257-7222
- Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division
- Milwaukee Health Department
- Rogers Behavioral Health