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Governor Directs DWD to Incorporate Best Practices for Opioid Prescription into Work Comp Statutes

The abuse of opioid medications like oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methadone has been described as having reached epidemic levels in the State of Wisconsin. In September of 2016 Governor Scott Walker unveiled the creation of a “Task Force on Opioid Abuse,” with an aim to work toward reducing and reversing the current trend of opioid abuse in the State.

The task force is chaired by Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch and Representative John Nygren. Other members of the task force include representatives from the AG’s office, the Wisconsin Medical Society, and the Office of the Commissioner of Insurance—to name just a few. The task force submitted a report to the Governor in late 2016, which outlined a number of legislative and executive initiatives that it was recommending for consideration and implementation in 2017.

On January 5, 2017, Governor Walker issued Executive Order #228, directing several of Wisconsin’s agencies to take specific actions based upon the task force’s recommendations. The Department of Workforce Development (“DWD”), for its part, was instructed to :

“…review the Workers Compensation Research Institute’s most recent report on interstate variation on opioid use and consult with the Workers Compensation Advisory Council to incorporate best practices into Wisconsin’s workers compensation statutes.”

The study that the Governor was referring to was published by the WCRI in June of 2016[1] and analyzed the patterns of opioid prescriptions to injured workers in 25 states—one of them being Wisconsin. In terms of the amount of opioids being prescribed to each injured worker, Wisconsin came in below the 25 state median amount. That being said, the study also found that the average amount of opioids being prescribed to injured workers in Wisconsin rose by 17% from 2012 to 2014.

The study also looked at the prevalence of prescribing opioids in conjunction with benzodiazepines and muscle relaxants. According to the study, taking these types of medications at the same time “may be potentially dangerous because all three classes of medications have a sedating effect and the additive effect could lead to respiratory depression.” The study reported that 1 out of 15 injured workers in Wisconsin were prescribed opioids and benzodiazepines at the same time, and that 30% of injured workers in Wisconsin were prescribed opioids and muscle relaxants at the same time. However, it was extremely uncommon (<2%) for all three types of drugs to be prescribed concurrently.

As we move further into 2017, it will be interesting to see what sort of impact the WCRI’s study will have on the consultation process between the DWD and the Worker’s Compensation Advisory Counsel, and whether any substantive changes to the Worker’s Compensation Act (WCA) or its implementing regulations will be made as a result.

[1] Liu T, Thumala V, Wang D. Interstate Variations in Use of Opioids, 3rd Edition. WCRI. 2016.