Last week, Governor Tony Evers signed into law a framework that would simplify the distribution of financial settlements from lawsuits filed against opioid manufacturers, distributors and retailers. The new law would allow Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul to intervene and provide legal aid to local governments navigating the financial settlement process for their legal cases.
Under the policy, the forthcoming settlements would be split — with thirty percent of the settlement going to the state and seventy percent to the local government. That money, both at the state and local level, will go towards opioid mitigation efforts. It would also help health departments recoup the costs of dealing with the opioid epidemic.
Almost every Wisconsin county has filed a lawsuit against the opioid manufacturers, distributors and retailers.
At a press conference today, Governor Tony Evers commended the legislation as a necessary tool to end years-long litigation. But he also said that it had some shortcomings — namely that all settlement agreements would have to be approved by the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee.
“While I have serious issues about the bill itself, I frankly was not willing to take away the opportunity to get the dollars to Wisconsin as soon as possible so it can help Wisconsin’s communities across the state,” Evers says.
The governor isn’t the only one who’s expressed concerns about the law — Attorney General Josh Kaul wrote in a press release that the policy “adds uncertainty to potential opioid-related settlements.” He’s also expressed reservations about allowing the Finance Committee to intervene in the settlements.
Evers says he’s unsure when the financial settlements will come through, or even what the total sum will be.
Hundreds of municipalities, counties, and states have filed lawsuits against pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors. After years spent litigating, a settlement could come in the next few months.
“They’re in the final phases of settling this and we should know soon, but I haven’t heard of any specific numbers,” Evers says. “There were some thrown around last February, but I don’t know the most recent [amount].”
Since last March, the opioid crisis has been stoked by another public health pandemic: COVID-19.
According to data from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Wisconsin saw more than 1,100 opioid-related deaths last year. That’s the highest death toll in at least the past twenty years.
Speaking at today’s press conference, Milwaukee county executive David Crowley said the stress of the pandemic contributed to the recent surge in opioid-related deaths. As the pandemic shut down businesses and organizations last spring, it also severed crucial support networks for those recovering from opioid addiction — like Narcotics Anonymous.
“If we look at last year alone, it’s been very difficult for us. The data is showing how this is also affecting the mental health as well as the behaviors of many of our residents,” Crowley says.
Since the height of the opioid epidemic, opioid manufacturers and distributors — most notably Purdue Pharmaceuticals — have faced lawsuits from states, counties and municipalities, who charge that Purdue and others aggressively marketed their opioid painkillers.
Purdue declared bankruptcy in 2019. That put the brakes on continuing litigation until the company reached a settlement deal, which Forbes reports will likely be finalized this August. NPR reports that Purdue’s is one of the most complicated bankruptcy cases in the nation’s history.
PHOTO: Jonah Chester