Data shows massive over-prescription of opioids in Wisconsin

By: - July 25, 2019 10:00 am
A customer hands a prescription to a pharmacist. Getty Images

From 2006 to 2012, Wisconsinites received 1,283,958,368 prescription pain pills. That’s according to a Drug Enforcement Administration database detailing the flow of pills nationwide. The database was released by order of a federal judge in Ohio and first reported on by the Washington Post.

The DEA’s Automated Report and Consolidated Ordering System (ARCOS) reveals a nebulous drug market sustained by a web of manufacturers and distributors. These are not black-market trap houses, but fully legal household names like Walgreens, CVS and Walmart. 

Obtaining the data, however, wasn’t an easy battle. “The DEA didn’t want to give that to us,”  Milwaukee County corporation counsel Margaret Daun told Wisconsin Examiner. Going as far as to push for the database to be kept under seal, Daun said, the DEA, “claimed that it [disclosure] would reveal investigative methods.”

By federal law, pharmaceutical manufacturers have to report both what they sell, and what they ship to the federal government. Companies must also report suspicious shipments, such as a county of 600,000 people received several million pills in a year.

Walgreens, the Badger State’s top distributor, provided more than 481 million pills. Over half a billion prescribed in Wisconsin alone were manufactured by SpecGx LLC. The pharmaceutical company is only 2 years old, and part of the conglomerate Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals. But Daun warns that focusing on the raw number of pills and not the dosages is a mistake. The ARCOS data shows high enough doses were given to provide every man, woman, and child, “a 10 milligram dose of Oxycodone every four hours constantly throughout the year.”

Last year, Milwaukee joined numerous other municipalities nationwide in filing civil lawsuits against drug manufacturers. The aim of the still-pending civil actions is to achieve settlements significant enough to begin repaying the damages done to society by the opioid crisis. Daun says evidence driving the lawsuits is “a combination of these knowing violations of federal law plus literally thousands of internal emails.”

Describing Milwaukee’s lawsuit as “unique,” she says, “we hired different outside expert counsel than did virtually every other county.” Daun said that as a result of its comprehensive take on the issue, Milwaukee was the only Wisconsin county selected as a representative to a group of local governments around the country seeking a national settlement. Out of thousands of suits filed from various states, cities, and counties, she said, there are only 50 representatives.

Milwaukee Corporation Counsel Margaret Daun

Shortly before the lawsuits were announced in 2018, the phrase “drug dealers in lab coats” was coined to describe unscrupulous  distributors. Some pain-management clinics were  labeled “pill mills.” Actually, says Daun, “It’s drug dealers in boardrooms.” She added, “There was simply too much money to be made for [the companies] to resist.”

While criminal action may be brought against individual clinics, including a Wauwatosa clinic shut down in 2018, they aren’t valuable for civil cases. Pill mills simply lack the capital to repay the damage done to society.

People can overdose several times before having a fatal experience and families drain bank accounts for treatment programs, Daun said. The addicted person can then become a community problem. “They’re showing up in our emergency rooms, we don’t have room for anyone else,” Daun said.

By the start of 2019, overdoses eclipsed car crashes as a top way to die in America. More than 400 people died of a drug overdose in Milwaukee County in 2017, triple the county’s rate of homicides.

Though groundbreaking, the release of the ARCOS data is just the beginning. The next step will be obtaining the most recent four to eight years of data. 

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.