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Attorney general hears about county’s drug worries

March 4, 2017 GMT

Columbia County leaders were met with overwhelming agreement and a sprinkling of gallows humor during a listening session Friday with Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel in Portage.

Law enforcement and local representatives squeezed into the roundtable discussion at the Law Enforcement Center, during which Schimel, flanked by state Sen. Luther Olsen and state Rep. Keith Ripp, inquired about the pressing matters in Columbia County. It was the 21st session he has conducted since taking office in January 2015.

The meeting had a sparse, open agenda, but with expectations coming from clear precedent, as opioid addiction took up the majority of the 90-minute meeting.

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“I’m interested to know — and in some counties I’ll hear that methamphetamine is a bigger problem — what’s it look like here in Columbia County,” asked Schimel, opening the discussion.

“We’re having issues with heroin, opiates, I think meth is starting to come back,” said Sheriff Dennis Richards. “But heroin is the biggest issue, along with the prescription drugs.”

Part of the problem, he said, was generally slow institutional response, in that by the time authorities orient resources to where they need to be, there is a new problem to address.

Lodi Police Chief Scott Klicko and Columbus Police Chief Daniel Meister talked about how their departments have been supplying the anti-overdose medication naloxone, marketed as Narcan, to officers.

Divine Savior Healthcare Vice President of Patient Care Jan Bauman responded to one billing question saying that the hospital’s Charity Care cases has increased. “I don’t have the exact numbers, but it’s either Charity Care or — and I don’t like to use the term — refusal to pay, people who will not pay for their care or any portion of it, it has escalated over the past few years.”

At the same time, she said, responding to a Schimel question, there has also been an increase of infants born with addictions, some of those patients going to Meriter in Madison where there is a neo-natal intensive care unit, treatment that costs upward of tens of thousands of dollars.

“We just had one last week and usually they just show up on your door and they haven’t had any pre-natal care,” she said. “They have their first visit to the doctors because they know they will be delivering in x-weeks.”

Despite the open floor, Schimel was looking for a particular point of view, asking around for someone from Health and Human Services, eventually provided by a late-arriving Katie Day, administrator of the division of children and families and 16-year veteran of the department.

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“We have seen an increase in the number of referrals relating to caregivers who are using drugs,” said Day describing the Drug Endangered Children program. “Obviously, if there is out-of-home care, that is a lot of trauma that is put on a child and the family.”

“So, I’ve got a truck full of money outside and you’re all going to have a competition to see who gets it,” said Schimel, received with a handful of polite chuckles. “But it’s important to learn more about these things. And anybody chime in.”

This was followed by an explanation of the demands on the education system as special-needs children with drug-related conditions grow up and go to school.

Schimel asked the group where people in Columbia County go for resources to deal with addiction. Day responded that the Columbia County Medication Assisted Treatment program refers clients to resources, but with a lack of available providers, and operating on a three-year grant shared with Sauk and Richland counties.

Columbia County Board Chairman Vern Gove was offered thanks in the meeting for his part in the board making funds available to get the project off the ground prior to grant disbursement.

Although over the past year the county has developed the MAT program and is on the verge of opening a drug court, when asked if there were sufficient resources within Columbia County, District Attorney Jane Kohlwey shot back: “Not sufficient.”

“We’re scratching the surface at best,” said Judge W. Andrew Voigt.

All of this came as no surprise to Schimel, he said, with the previous 20 meetings featuring the same complaints and concerns. “Unless we figure out a way to pay people enough to attract them into this work, we’re not going to do it, especially in more rural counties, and you are far from the most rural county on this tour so far,” he said.

“You’ve got more resources than some, you’ve got less resources than some,” said Schimel after the meeting. “You’re kinda right down the middle of the pack.”

Highlighting the concern among law enforcement about the availability of naloxone, Schimel said that it was a notable win in terms of changing the attitude of the work to social welfare: “For them to even want that is kind of a new phenomenon -- and it’s good news. It’s good news for our profession.”

As far as the crime and punishment side of the equation, Schimel counts roughly 50 counties (out of 72) that have drug courts or are on track to start them, such as Columbia.

“You know, hopefully, these prevention efforts — and I’m very optimistic they will start to make a difference such that as we get a few more years down the road, the demands are going to depress,” said Schimel.

“So we’ll hopefully see our prison populations diminish and those people will become productive members of the community instead of the snowball rolling down the mountain that happens when you lock somebody up.”

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