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Saving Lives: AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin’s Ultimate Mission

Anti-heroin overdose program gets the seal of approval

Feb. 18, 2014
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A package of bills meant to combat the heroin epidemic in Wisconsin is poised to pass the Senate as we go to press—with not one vote against it in the State Assembly.

The HOPE bills, authored by state Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), whose daughter is battling heroin addiction, will provide more safeguards for those who seek to aid addicts while they’re on the verge of a fatal overdose.

Although the HOPE bills are new to Wisconsin, one program affirmed in the legislation has been quietly operating under the direction of AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin (ARCW) as part of its aim to get addicts off the needle and into rehab.

For the past eight years, under the radar, ARCW has been training injection drug users on how to use Narcan, medication that can halt an opiate overdose immediately and give the user a window of opportunity to get medical help—and then, hopefully, into treatment.

ARCW’s Lifepoint program is quite literally lifesaving. In 2012 alone, ARCW’s Narcan training prevented 787 overdose deaths around Wisconsin, more than two a day. In addition, ARCW provides injection drug users with HIV prevention and testing, overdose prevention, a clean needle exchange program, and access to drug and alcohol treatment services. ARCW’s needle-exchange program is the largest statewide program in the country, with 2.5 million needles exchanged last year. The program has reduced new HIV infections attributed to injection drug use by 67% since its inception in 1994.

According to ARCW Vice President Bill Keeton’s testimony on the HOPE bills in January, the agency has reached about 17,000 injection drug users annually since the program’s inception, and has trained about 2,500 clients on how to use Narcan—2,134 of whom have said they have saved a life because they used Narcan on someone at risk of fatally overdosing.

One of Nygren’s bills would clarify the ability of ARCW and its clients to possess Narcan by permitting more Wisconsinites to obtain it and administer it to others.

“The individuals we train don’t have to wait for EMTs to get there,” Keeton said. “They are able to do this immediately, which is saving incredibly valuable minutes when time is really of the essence.”

In a statement provided to the Shepherd, Nygren wrote, “If this bill saves one person from an overdose, it will be worth the effort.”


A Life-or-Death Drug

Currently in Wisconsin, Narcan, also known as naloxone, is available by prescription. Public health agencies—such as ARCW—are allowed to dispense it and some first responders are allowed to administer it, but ambulances and police aren’t required to carry it. That means this lifesaving drug isn’t available when addicts need it most.

“One of the challenges of that approach is that first responders usually get to the scene too late,” ARCW President and CEO Michael Gifford told the Shepherd. “That’s why making this drug available to people who are going to be on the scene earlier is really the opportunity to save lives.”

Narcan can be administered via injection or nasally when an opiate drug user is overdosing. When administered, it immediately halts the overdose and gives the user a window of opportunity in which they can get medical attention. The drug has no effect on someone without opiates in their system. And it has no adverse side effects, other than the discomfort created by opiate withdrawal.

Wisconsin’s policy on Narcan is more restrictive than other states. According to testimony from Dr. Mike Miller of the Wisconsin Medical Society, New York State provides the nasal version without a prescription, while in North Carolina each person who is prescribed pain medication is also given Narcan in case of overdose.

“It’s not harmful,” Miller testified. “No one dies from Narcan. They die from not getting Narcan.”

Karen Hale of Hudson is the mom of a daughter who overdosed last year. Her daughter was prescribed Oxycontin when she got her wisdom teeth pulled; she developed an addiction that lasted long after the prescription ran out. Hale urged lawmakers to pass the Narcan bill, as well as a Good Samaritan bill that would protect those who call first responders in the case of an overdose emergency. Hale’s daughter died in a hotel room; a shot of Narcan and a timely 911 call could have saved her life.

“In society, we don’t normally give addicts a second chance,” Hale said. “But Narcan could potentially give addicts a second chance when they hit bottom and recognize that they have reached the end of their rope.”


ARCW’s Forward-Thinking Mission

ARCW’s Lifepoint program is just one example of its lifesaving offerings to those battling HIV or drug addiction.

ARCW offers AIDS/HIV patients a one-stop shop for their needs, based on an innovative medical home model. Clients can sign up for insurance, get medical, behavioral health and dental care, as well as see a pharmacist, stop in at one of its food pantries, get legal advice or obtain housing assistance.

Its AIDS/HIV medical home is so forward-thinking that it’s the first of its kind in the nation to receive approval by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Its comprehensive services are so effective that almost 80% of its HIV patients have an undetectable viral load, three times higher than the national average.

The organization serves some of the hardest-to-reach consumers: largely minority, gay, and stigmatized by their HIV status. At least 94% are living in poverty. Yet ARCW has had incredible success in treating each of its 2,742 clients with respect and sensitivity to each individual’s complex daily life and health needs.

“We as an organization are trying to find practical, meaningful, cost-effective ways to address some of society’s greatest challenges,” ARCW’s Gifford told the Shepherd. “We keep in mind that we want to save people’s lives and we want to do it in a way that can assure that these individuals can thrive and that people can support what we do.”


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