Wisconsin is slated to get thirty-one million dollars in settlements from opioid manufacturers and distributors, the product of drawn-out lawsuits over the role they played in fueling the opioid epidemic.
Wisconsin is expected to get all of that money by the end of this year.
The first round of settlement money—$6 million dollars—is being held up by the Republican-controlled legislative budget committee. Today, Attorney General Josh Kaul called on that committee to stop stalling the money—and get the money into the hands of public health departments.
He states, “The Joint Finance Committee objected, anonymously, to the Department of Health Services proposal on the last day when they could object, and we still don’t have a plan from them as to how to get these dollars to our communities. This epidemic is having an impact on Wisconsinites right now and we need to get these resources to Wisconsinites as soon as possible. So, we are calling on the Joint Finance Committee to come back into session, to act, and to get resources to communities across Wisconsin.”
Seventy percent of the settlement funds are slated to go directly to counties and municipalities, to assist with ongoing substance abuse efforts that for years, have drained public health coffers. The other thirty percent is slated to go to the Department of Health Services. DHS Secretary Karen Timberlake says that the first part of the plan is focused on prevention—providing things like Narcan, which can reverse an opioid overdose, and fentanyl testing strips. Those strips only became legal this spring.
She explains, “I think it’s really important to just remind ourselves that the opioid epidemic in Wisconsin, as around the country, really began in the late 1990s and it has been exacerbated in recent years due to the presence of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. Leading to, over time, about a 900% increase in opioid overdose deaths in just about a 20 year period of time, between 1999 and 2018. Just locally here in Dane County back in 2014 there were 61 deaths from opioid overdoses, and in 2020 there were 123. And those similar increases of two and three, and even in some cases four times, is a trend that we are seeing all across the state. And so that is a continuum that starts with prevention, includes harm reduction—to save lives—includes treatment, and includes recovery services. All we need is to have the committee’s current objection lifted so that we can push the first $6 million dollars which came into the state at the end of July, has been sitting here for three and a half weeks, is not yet out into communities. We are ready to go, we are ready to push those resources out into communities, and to make smart investments with the remainder of the total of about $31 million dollars that is expected.”
Another effect of the opioid epidemic? A surge in criminal charges related to trafficking and abuse. Dane County Sheriff Kalvin Barrett says they need help so that law enforcement resources aren’t diverted to opioid misuse.
He continues, “We, as law enforcement, stand downstream in the fast flowing river we call addiction. And we are pulling individuals out of that river on a daily basis. What we need, and with the assistance of the approval of the funds for this, are the resources needed to go upstream and address why people are falling into that fast flowing river so that that can reduce the number of individuals we are constantly pulling out and entering into our criminal justice system. We need a proactive approach and not a continuous reactive approach. As the Dane County Sheriff I am here to say that we will not arrest our way out of this opioid pandemic and we need help.”
The funding has been held up by the budget committee due to an anonymous complaint. The Legislative Finance Committee hasn’t even set a deadline to release the funding.
Jon Erpenbach, a Senator who is part of the Democratic minority on the committee, says even he doesn’t know the identity of the anonymous objector. He says none of his Democratic colleagues on the committee made the objection – and he blames the committee’s Republican majority.
He states, “Cause what’s going on is someone in Wisconsin, right now, today, has overdosed. Couple of minutes ago. Is Narcan available? Don’t know. Would it help? It brings them back to life. And the idea that we could spend $3 million dollars and get Narcan all over the state of Wisconsin is so important, just absolutely so important. And the Republicans who objected to this—they’re at a different level of stupid right now and it’s dangerous. And the idea that twelve Republicans said ‘no we want to take a further look at this’ when somebody’s gonna die tonight. Hopefully it’s nobody they know. And I tell you what, if any one of those twelve members have had any sort of personal experience with this issue and they’re still objecting, shame on them. Shame on them. So, Evan and I, and other Democrats on the Finance Committee are calling for Finance to meet today, this afternoon, tomorrow, whatever—this weekend. Whatever it takes for us to get at least that $6 million dollars out the door and start saving some lives.”
The funds are tied up even as opioid related deaths and hospitalizations have climbed for more than a decade.
In 2020, the last year with available data, Wisconsin counties provided almost 23,000 people with substance use treatment and services. More than 4,000 of those cases involved opioids alone.
In 2017, the CDC estimated an economic cost of $1,845 per Wisconsinite due to opioid abuse.
Featured Image Courtesy of K-State Research and Extension on Flickr.