Counties Join Suit Against "Big Pharm" Opioid MakersIssue Date: November 1, 2017
Marinette and Oconto counties are both poised to become parties in a lawsuit being brought against several major pharmaceutical companies for their role in creating the national opioid epidemic. The law suits have been billed as an attempt to hold "big pharm" responsible for their "unethical and sometimes illegal" promotions of drugs that led to the national epidemic.
At a special meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 31, Marinette County Board's Executive Committee voted to support a resolution through which they will join Wisconsin Counties Association (WCA) and other counties to hire three law firms that they believe "have the requisite skill, experience and wherewithal to prosecute legal claims against certain of the opioid manufacturers on behalf of public entities seeking to hold them responsible for the opioid epidemic."
Marinette County Board is expected to adopt the enabling resolution at its meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 14. There is hope of recovery, and no direct fiscal impact to the county except staff time spent assembling information mainly in Health and Human Services and Sherif's departments.
Oconto County Board took similar action at its meeting on Thursday, Oct. 26 after an explanation by Corporation Counsel Cheryl Mick and considerable discussion. Vote there was 24 in favor, three against, three absent and one position vacant. Opposing votes were cast by supervisors Robert Reinhart, Gregory Sekela, and Gary Frank. Supervisors Chris Augustine, Don Bartels, Jr. and Ryan Wendt were absent. The District 21 supervisor position was vacant due to the death of long-time supervisor Mary Lemmen. Later in that meeting Tim O'Harrow was approved to fill that vacancy.
Prior to being placed on the agenda for the full County Board meeting, joining the suit had been recommended without opposition by the Oconto County Health and Human Services Board. Members of that group include Supervisor Al Sleeter, Chairperson; supervisors Diane Nichols, Ron Korzeniewski, Mary Lemmen, Jim Lacourciere and Judy Buhrandt, plus citizen members Loretta Shellman, Carolyn Barke and Kathy Gohr.
At the Marinette County Executive Committee meeting following the monthly County Board meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 31, Corporation Counsel Gale Mattison explained the proposed suit was much discussed at the WCA convention in September, and hopes are to get things going as quickly as possible.
"There's a rather large opioid epidemic across the country," Mattison said, "and the law firms are planning to sue Big pharm for knowingly contributing to or creating this problem." She pointed out this is not a class action suit, it is individual counties suing for recovery of expenses the epidemic has caused for them.
The law firms will not charge the counties unless there is a recovery, but each county will entail some expenses for staff time spent compiling the cost reports the law firms will need.
The resolution states the county is concerned with the recent rapid rise in troubles among County citizens, residents and visitors in relation to problems arising out of the use, abuse and overuse of opioid medications, which impact millions of people across the country. According to the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, costs associated with the opioid epidemic "are staggering," and reportedly amount to over $75 billion each year.
The resolution says that certain manufacturers of specific opioid medications have been identified by the National Institute for Health as being directly responsible for the rapid rise of the opioid epidemic "by virtue of their aggressive and, according to some, unlawful and unethical marketing practices."
The county is responsible for a multitude of programs and services which become more and more difficult every year because of costs associated with providing the Opioid Epidemic programs and services. It is these costs that the lawsuits will attempt to recover.
The law firms involved are Briesen & Roper, S.C.; Crueger Dickinson, LLC, and Simmons Hanly Conroy, LLC.
The resolution states that by pursuing claims against the manufacturers the county is attempting to hold the persons and entities that had a significant role in the creation of the Opioid Epidemic responsible for the costs the counties and other public entities are facing in dealing with it.
Mattison repeated, "This is not a freebie," since the county will have costs involved with assembling records and cost information, but there is no direct cost unless there is a recovery.
County Board Chair Mark Anderson commented that WCA looked at the tobacco settlements and the money that came back some years ago due to those suits. He said the State of Wisconsin gobbled up all that settlement money, and the counties got none, which is apparently why this proceeding is being handled as individual suits. "I think they have a case," Anderson commented.
Supervisor Don Pazynski wondered if the counties could be liable for costs the law firms entail if there is a settlement, but the payments do not meet the costs involved in getting it. He was told that cannot happen, as expenses are capped at the settlement amount.
Mattison commented WCA sees this as a chance for counties to recover some money, "or at least a chance to increase public awareness of the problem."
Supervisors agreed that simply increasing public awareness and making the big pharm manufacturers aware that they are at risk would make getting involved worthwhile, and vote to go forward was unanimous. Approval by the full County Board is expected at the budget meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 14.
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