Health experts project decrease in 2019 La Crosse County drug overdose deaths

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) – According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, $95 million in federal money was spent to fight the opioid epidemic in Wisconsin in 2018.

As News 8 Now reported earlier, La Crosse County had eight drug overdoses in the past week that resulted in two deaths. Local health officials say 2019 was a better year for overdose deaths in La Crosse County. However, a permanent solution remains a goal.

“It’s a very difficult problem to fix,” said Dr. Chris Eberlein, an emergency medicine physician at Gundersen Health System.

The opioid epidemic continues to strain communities around the U.S.

“This is an unfortunate reoccurring tragedy we have been seeing throughout the last several years with this opioid epidemic,” Eberlein said. “You don’t have to go very far outside your small box to realize how many people this is affecting.”

He said there were roughly 22 overdose deaths last year with data still pending, two fewer than 2018. Despite the slight improvement, the County is far from stopping the problem.

“In the toxicology report, there are fewer prescription opioids present which is good,” said Al Bliss, health educator with the La Crosse County Health Department. But fentanyl and heroin remain high.”

Eberlein said fentanyl is a thousand times more potent than heroin.

“The users continue to use the same quantity not knowing how potent it is,” Eberlein said.

The drug is shipped to Chicago and Minneapolis. Much like a river, it flows into the La Crosse community.

“We are just the route between,” Eberlein said. “A few weeks ago, Minneapolis had a large outbreak of overdoses. Then about a week or so later we get it.”

He said the drug is more profitable for the user and in some ways more cost-effective for the user. At the same time, fentanyl is more detrimental to the community it infests.

“It took us a long time to get here,” Eberlein said. “It’s going to take a long time to get out.”

The community foots the bill for programs to get these people off these drugs. However, Eberlein said if the community doesn’t continue to work the problem, emergency, police and health care costs will continue to rise.

“If we can prevent it from happening in the first place all of those downstream costs go away,” Eberlein said.

Eberlein said people can’t give up.

“People don’t wake up one day and decide to be a heroin addict,” Eberlein said. “Do we have a perfect treatment for it yet? No. But we are using the best tools that we have to treat this disease.”

Health experts say when overdose patients come to the hospital many can’t cover the health care cost. The health care facility absorbs the cost which affects those of us who do have health insurance.

Officials with the La Crosse County Medical Examiner’s office expect to have official 2019 overdose numbers in a couple of weeks.