Addiction is a difficult subject to discuss because it is often complex. For one, drug addiction is a law enforcement matter, which brings a moral element to the discussion. Theft is clearly wrong, as is assault. But moral judgment when it comes to drug addiction is less clear. Addiction can be intertwined with physical dependence, which blurs the lines on culpability, self-responsibility, and free will. Addiction is a criminal justice issue, but it is also a health care issue – and a human issue.
Recently, I hosted multiple events at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls to address addiction and mental health. I was honored to welcome Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, who participated in our student mental health roundtable and our screening of “Written Off,” a documentary film about one man’s battle with addiction. Matt Edwards, a Wisconsin native, became addicted to prescription opioids after a toe surgery. He went on to abuse pills and other drugs, cycling between the desire to quit, withdrawal, and relapse.
The screening helped illustrate the complexity of addiction. An individual seeking health care ended up addicted to something that was legal and prescribed by a doctor. The screening also provided a glimpse into the national opioid crisis, which claimed the lives of almost 2,000 Wisconsinites in 2017.
Following the screening, we had a panel of individuals representing law enforcement, the judicial system, and those who have interacted with drug court. I was honored to have our panelists Pierce County Judge Joseph Boles, Pierce County District Attorney Sean Froelich, River Falls Police Chief Gordon Young, Pierce County Drug Court Coordinator Mary Kelly, drug court participant Tasha, and drug court graduate Chris share their unique perspectives on this complicated problem.
The conversation was impactful and deep, and we all have a role to play in combating addiction. As a legislator, my biggest takeaway was the need for resources. I am encouraged by past bipartisan efforts to address the opioid crisis. But addiction isn’t limited to just opioids. Meth and fentanyl are disrupting lives and county budgets, particularly in northwestern Wisconsin.
When it comes to addiction and how we can combat it, we need to talk about our priorities. In Madison, there is no greater signal of priorities than the state budget. In his budget proposal, Governor Tony Evers has proposed more money for our rural hospitals and for mental health and addiction services. The governor has also proposed to expand Medicaid, which would increase access to addiction treatment.
There is room for bipartisanship, even if we might disagree on some items in the budget. I genuinely believe Medicaid expansion is one of those areas. The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau has estimated that Medicaid expansion in 2020 can expand coverage to 76,000 more people while saving $279 million over the 2019-20 biennium. The state saves money because expanding coverage triggers additional federal funding that offsets state spending.
I am grateful for the opportunity to listen and bring these perspectives down to Madison. I’m hopeful that we can come together to find real solutions to the addiction crisis.