The Door County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution to enter into litigation against opioid manufacturers to recover costs the county has incurred related to the opioid epidemic.
The lawsuit itself will not cost the county anything, as attorneys representing the counties entering into the suit will not be paid unless the litigation does recover some costs. But preparation for the suit could be costly and time consuming.
“We need to establish that we have a right to recover and that’s one of the cons to this getting involved in the opioid litigation,” said Corporation Counsel Grant Thomas, who added that he is in favor of getting involved.
To establish that right to recover, county staff needs to go through its records and collect materials showing the county has spent money, time or both on managing the opioid epidemic. If the opioid manufacturers are found liable for any part of the epidemic and pay a sum in settlement, that amount will be divided up between the counties that joined in the litigation.
The attorneys for the county would help in going through county records, but the process could take a significant amount of administrative time.
The uncertainty didn’t deter many board members, with most claiming a civic duty to join in the suit and stop the epidemic.
“I’m very proud this resolution has come before our county,” said supervisor Laura Vlies Wotachek. “This is making a point that enough is enough.”
“This is an epidemic and what’s alarming about this is the numbers,” said supervisor Richard Virlee, citing statistics on opioid-related deaths. “This is something that has to be dealt with.”
Opioid Litigation: A Tobacco Case Study
The primary reason Door County Corporation Counsel Grant Thomas encouraged the board to participate in litigation against opioid manufacturers was because something strikingly similar happened in the 1990s and counties missed out.
“It’s analogous, if not entirely, to tobacco litigation that took place,” Thomas told the county board.
The tobacco litigation had to do with a lawsuit filed by the State of Wisconsin and 46 other states against several tobacco manufacturers. In the lawsuit, the states argued these tobacco companies didn’t warn people of tobacco’s adverse health effects, altered nicotine levels for the purpose of getting consumers addicted, and tobacco companies should pay the states back for costs to battle those health effects.
The suit was successful and the tobacco companies were required to pay massive sums of money to the states. Between 1999 and 2002 alone, Wisconsin received $447,966,900 in unrestricted funds. By 2023, Wisconsin will have received $5.9 billion in payouts from tobacco companies, which paid $206 billion in total.
Wisconsin used that money to set up the Tobacco Control Board to help offset tobacco-related health care costs and fund initiatives to reduce tobacco use. But counties played a big part in both costs of tobacco use and campaigns against it.
“The counties didn’t receive any of the huge monetary settlement and that’s one of the reasons for initiating suit on behalf of the counties,” said Thomas.
Search for EMS Director Continues
The county also voted to hire two additional captains for Emergency Services (EMS) as they continue the hiring process for a new director.
A 14-5 vote was split between those heeding the requests of the department for additional staff and those who wanted to hire the EMS director before hiring for other positions. The push for additional staff, brought to the county board by EMS committee chair Joel Gunnlaugsson, was recommended by interim EMS director Jeff Roemer.
“We need a department head that’s going to be here, not some outsider telling us what to do,” said supervisor Ken Fisher. “Let’s hear from the department head and get a leader on board first.”
The additional two hires, which are already in the 2018 budget, would require an additional tax burden of 3.5 cents per $1,000 in assessed home value.
“We’re struggling getting all our training done,” said supervisor Susan Kohout. “We’re having trouble keeping up with emergency management tasks. These are all things these captains will assist our director and deputy director.”
County Administrator Ken Pabich said staff is getting burned out.
“I think there’s a strong chance if we don’t do something to help Aaron [LeClair, deputy director] out then we’ll lose him,” said Pabich. “If we don’t do something you’re not going to keep those individuals in those positions.”
According to EMS reports, ambulance runs have increased 50 percent between 2012 and 2016. The number of ambulance runs in 2017 is on track to increase again this year.
The county will begin the hiring process for two captains and a director in 2018 while extending the contract for Roemer through the first quarter of next year.
In other matters:
- Supervisors spent an hour of the Oct. 24 meeting debating what the hourly rate for supervisors should be. A general consensus agreed increasing the rate from $150 to $200 per county board meeting was unnecessary and a slight majority, by a show-of-hands vote, rejected moving to a salary instead of payment per meeting.
- The county board passed a resolution opposing elimination of the J-1 visa program.
- Soil and Water Conservation Department head Erin Hanson presented changes to NR 151 to the board. The changes will limit mechanical application of manure in the karst topography of northeast Wisconsin.