The effort by some in Vilas County to have the county board take a larger role in helping combat the opioid and opiate abuse epidemic suffered a setback Monday.
The county board's executive and legislative committee voted 5-1 against sending a resolution to the full county board that would have, if approved, the county joining a class action lawsuit against large pharmaceutical companies which manufacture drugs such as oxycodone.
The issue has been something discussed at length at committee level, such as at meetings of the tribal concerns committee, for months now.
In May of last year, to get the opioid and opiate abuse issue more attention at the county board level, Dr. Michael Larson, a health psychologist in the Marshfield Clinic system, gave a presentation to the full board.
At its November meeting, Bob Kovar, a consultant who regularly attends meetings of the tribal concerns committee and a member of the Lakeland Area Task Force, also addressed the county board, offering more information and items the board could do to help.
He said the Lakeland Area Task Force was formed in 2011 "to try and respond to the increase of prescribed painkillers that were reaching people in our communities and were addicting people in our communities."
During his presentation, Kovar went over 11 different possible steps the county could take, mostly through county board resolutions that included joining a multi-county class action lawsuit against big pharmaceutical companies.
As of Dec. 20, according to the Wisconsin Counties Association's website, 59 of the state's 72 counties have joined the lawsuit.
Vilas County isn't among them and Monday, the executive and legislative committee discussed a resolution which would address that.
'I don't know'
Committee member Jay Verhulst began the discussion by passing around a copy of the cover of a recent magazine from the WCA.
It showed an outline of the state of Wisconsin and Vilas County as "not a contributing member to this (lawsuit)."
"But I think it's worthy of note where all the other counties are with respect to this issue," he said. "You can see Dane County's not involved. Milwaukee County's not involved, Walworth County. I can't understand ... particularly Milwaukee County and Dane County not being engaged if there's any hope for this lawsuit whatsoever. It makes you wonder."
Committee member Walt Maciag said as the resolution is written, he had a difficult time supporting it.
Lack of specificity was one of the reasons he said he couldn't.
"It (the resolution and lawsuit) charges, or alleges, that certain pharmaceutical companies, which are not named ... I don't know who these people are, OK?" Maciag said. "Secondly, it says they have engaged in unlawful and unethical behavior. But it doesn't say what that unlawful or unethical behavior is."
He said the only thing he saw that was specific in the resolution is the name of a couple of law firms "that want to handle the case without identification of what the fee is."
"Until there is more specification so I can make a reasonable judgement, I can't really support this thing," Maciag said.
As a county supervisor, he represents the town of Cloverland.
"Some of the people in my district, many of them are retired," Maciag said. "They have 401Ks, pension plans, mutual funds, all of which ... some contain stock in these pharmaceutical companies that are not named. They're suing themselves."
He said those individuals who do own stock in those companies should be able to divest themselves of those stocks should the county proceed "with anything like this."
"Those are my thoughts and feelings and why I can't support this," Maciag said. "Not because, once again, somebody might not be held responsible for something but that number one, I don't know who and I don't know what. So, I have to pass on this and if it comes to a vote, I will vote no."
Verhulst said opioids do include a number of the products manufactured by pharmaceutical companies.
"But it also includes heroin," he said. "That's not manufactured by any of these companies. There are numerous companies outside the borders of the United States that are shipping copies of what these pharmaceutical companies are producing into the United States."
Verhulst mentioned he'd seen a news story earlier that morning about actions taken by the U.S. Postal Service "cracking down on them."
"They're up 800 percent in seizure of private packages because of opioids," he said. "With them all lumped together like that, naming these companies seems to be potentially only a small portion of those that could be involved."
Effective and unsettling
Committee member Chuck Hayes began his comments by referring to Kovar's presentation at the November county board meeting as what he thought "was a very effective and unsettling presentation about the opioid epidemic in Vilas County."
"And my reading of the general reaction was 'Golly gee, this is terrible, we ought to do something, we ought to set up a task force, we ought to assign it to this committee,'" he said. "That was two months ago. To my knowledge, this is the only thing we've done besides say 'Golly gee' on this and there are problems with it (the resolution) in terms that you've already identified."
Hayes then referred to the WCA magazine cover.
"But what do these guys know that we don't know?" he asked.
Maciag said it could be "lemming litigation."
"Could be," Hayes said.
"People who want to be noble and say 'Oh, my God! We gotta do something!' you know, and it'll all go away," Maciag said. "Just as the label on cigarettes has not stopped people from smoking and dying from lung cancer."
"But are we going to wait until the corporations are identified?" Hayes asked. "Are we going to wait until the infractions have been specified?"
"For me, yes," Maciag responded. "The question is 'Who are we gonna sue?'"
"Who's going to do that?" Hayes asked. "Who's going to identify the corporations? Who's going to identify that?'"
"Don't know," Maciag said.
Committee chairman Ron DeBruyne said he assumed that would come from whomever drew up the template for the resolution at the WCA.
Needs some work
County clerk Dave Alleman said the resolution has been in existence since July or August of 2017.
He said concerns expressed by county board corporation counsel Jack Albert, who was absent from the meeting, were essentially mirrored by comments made by the county's finance director, Jason Hilger.
Those concerns centered around unknown cost to the county, despite the fact verbiage as presented outlines attorneys bringing the lawsuit would only be paid if the courts ultimately found in favor of the counties involved.
Hilger said there has been no information provided regarding the annual cost or total cost to be incurred by the county and there has also been no information provided regarding the amount of recovery or potential for recovery.
"I'm concerned that all expenses incurred by 'Big Pharma,' either (through) litigation or a judgement, will be passed on to the county and the citizens through higher drug costs," he wrote in a note attached to the proposed resolution.
Alleman said there are unknowns when it comes to cost and Albert wanted to let it be known that this wasn't going to be a case where "we sign our names and we get a bunch of money."
Committee member Carolyn Ritter said what she was seeing there was the legal firms would be involved on a contingency basis.
"If the county gets nothing in this lawsuit, then there's no cost to the county," she said. "That's my understanding."
Meg O'Marro, the county's assistant corporation counsel, said even in a contingency arrangement, the county wouldn't be "off the hook" completely with regard to cost.
"Expert witnesses need to be hired," she said. "The law firm isn't going to pay for that expert witness for the person they're representing. It's typically how it's handled."
Alleman read a passage from the engagement letter from the law firms involved in the case that helped back what O'Marro said.
"It's not necessarily free," he said.
DeBruyne said the WCA has been successful at getting most counties to participate in the lawsuit but he didn't like the idea of "being the first guy at the trough."
"I'd rather be at the back of the pack when a lot of the questions are answered and not necessarily where the taxpayers of Vilas County are gonna be exposed to expenses that I'm getting them exposed to with my judgement based on the ... suggestion of the Wisconsin Counties Association."
Ritter, saying what she saw was a very strong message being sent to pharmaceutical companies "that what you did is wrong and we're all bearing the cost and problems that come with it," made the motion to approve the resolution, which was seconded by Hayes, he said, for the sake of further discussion of the agenda item.
When it came time for a vote, however, he voted against the resolution along with DeBruyne, Verhulst, Maciag and committee member Holly Tomlanovich.
There were simply too many questions and after the vote, DeBruyne said he didn't have a problem with bringing the resolution back and maybe forwarding it to the county board.
"I think it needs some work before that happens," he said.
Brian Jopek may be reached via email at bjopek@lakelandtimes.