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Milwaukee County Tries New Approach to Combat Overdoses

Milwaukee County has one of the nation's worst rates of overdose death. The county has seen an especially dramatic spike in deaths among its Black population, with fatal overdoses increasing by 75% between 2020 and 2022. Thanks to funding, the county is now trying to address these issues in new ways. Milwaukee County has received more than $100 million from opioid settlements reached in 2021 and 2023, Governing reports. It's devoting that money to prevention and treatment programs, not only through the Department of Health and Human Services. Every county department, with the possible exception of the zoo, has been affected by the opioid epidemic, says Jennifer Wittwer, director of the Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division. They were all invited to submit proposals for projects using settlement funds. The county has funded 15 projects with grants to the sheriff’s office, the medical examiner and the Office of Emergency Management.

The projects involve all kinds of approaches, including supplies of naloxone, commonly known by the brand name Narcan (used to restore normal breathing after an overdose), patrol officers and housing assistance, education and outreach, vending machines stocked with harm-reduction supplies and interventions for incarcerated adults and youth in detention. The settlement funds are game-changing, Wittwer says, and the projects draw on established best practices. Implementation is just beginning, and it’s too soon to gauge their impact. Wittwer is encouraged that the county’s decision to use the settlement funds in this way has brought county stakeholders together on a regular basis, to plan, report out on projects and identify ways to strengthen partnerships and leverage resources. “That’s been one of the unanticipated outcomes of the methodology Milwaukee County has had,” she says. “I think it’s making us much stronger as a community.”


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