More Treatment Options Needed for Alcohol Abuse

By State Senator Julie Lassa


I received a heart-wrenching email from a constituent recently.  Several years ago, she sought help for her son, who suffered from alcoholism and was ready to seek treatment.  They contacted a local treatment center, but they were told that there was no inpatient treatment available.  Two days later, he was arrested for drunk driving, and has been in jail ever since.


Her story points out a tragic reality.  In recent years the Legislature has taken important steps to combat the problem of addiction to prescription pain killers and heroin, and media coverage has made Wisconsinites more aware of the issue.  But we have yet to take real action about the substance that is most widely abused in our state: alcohol.  Treatment options for alcoholics were strained even before the outbreak of opioid abuse; the increase in demand for detox and rehabilitation services has made the availability of residential treatment even more inadequate now.  As recent news reports indicate, there are 120- to 140-person waiting lists at the residential treatment centers in Central Wisconsin; and while people wait, the chance that they may have their lives ruined by alcohol continues.


The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence recognizes April as Alcohol Awareness Month to encourage us all to consider the impact of alcohol abuse on our lives.  According to the most recent Wisconsin Epidemiological Profile on Alcohol and Other Drug Use, in 2012, alcohol was a factor in at least 1,822 deaths and 2,907 motor vehicle crash injuries in Wisconsin. There were a staggering 48,074 alcohol-related hospitalizations that resulted in more than $1.2 billion in medical charges. Overall, the economic burden on the people of Wisconsin resulting from excessive alcohol use totaled $6.8 billion.


We need to continue to work to make excessive alcohol consumption socially unacceptable, just as cigarette smoking has become. But in the meantime, we need to provide more treatment options for those who are in the grip of alcohol addiction.   Wisconsin took a positive step in 2010 when we mandated insurance parity for alcohol treatment, but this will provide little good if treatment facilities have long waiting lists, leaving alcoholics to risk jail or worse while they await treatment.


Residential treatment provides alcoholics a space where they can undergo detoxification, receive counseling and other therapy, and be away from the social and environmental factors that may contribute to their alcohol use.  But these programs often last 28 days and are prohibitively expensive for many of the people who need them.   If we want to reduce the social costs and human misery associated with problem drinking, we will need to invest in more treatment facilities.  If we devoted just a fraction of what we pay in the economic costs of alcohol abuse, we could help many more individuals become rehabilitated. 


I am glad that Wisconsin is making real progress in addressing our opioid abuse problem.  I hope Alcohol Awareness Month will help us all become more aware of the problem of excessive alcohol use, so we can devote the same level of attention and action to our number-one substance abuse problem.