The Daily Globe - Serving Gogebic, Iron and Ontonagon Counties

Iron County joins statewide legal effort against opioid makers


December 20, 2017

HURLEY — Iron County is joining other Wisconsin counties in filing lawsuits against the manufactures of opioid medications, after the Iron County Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution to that effect Tuesday.

The lawsuit is part of the Wisconsin Counties Association’s effort to involve as many of the state’s 72 counties as possible in legal action against the pharmaceutical companies.

“They’re trying to get all 72 counties on board, there’s right around 50 — or a little better than 50 — that are finally onboard with it,” County board chairman Joe Pinardi said after the meeting. “I passed the resolution and everything on to our corporation counsel and he went over it with a fine tooth comb and said it’s a good thing and we can get on board with it.”

The resolution cites the financial impact of providing services to residents dealing with opioid addiction as part of the basis from the lawsuit.

“(Iron County) has spent millions in unexpected and unbudgeted time and resources in its programs and services related to the opioid epidemic and (the) county is responsible for a multitude of programs and services, all of which require (the) county to expend resources generated through state and federal aid, property tax levy, fees and other permissible revenue sources,” the resolution reads. “(Iron County’s) provision of programs and services becomes more and more difficult every year because the costs associated with providing the opioid epidemic programs and services continue to rise, yet (the) county’s ability to generate revenue is limited by strict levy limit caps and stagnant or declining state and federal aid to (the) county.”

The resolution argues the money could be spent on other programs for residents if it wasn’t needed for opioid-related costs.

The county will use the law firms of von Briesen & Roper, Crueger Dickinson LLC and Simmons Hanly Conroy LLC in its lawsuit, according to the resolution, with the firms representing the county on a contingency basis — meaning they will bear the costs upfront and only be paid if the county receives “financial benefit” from the suit.

Several board members said during the meeting targeting the pharmaceutical companies was not enough or focused on the wrong part of the opioid problem.

“We’re suing the opioid manufacturers — they’re making (the drugs),” county board member Larry Youngs said. “When are we going to start suing the people that are actually writing the prescriptions out there?”

Others supported the idea of going after the manufacturers.

“This is the way they took down the tobacco companies, this is the same concept they’re going with,” county board member Scott Erickson said.

There was a general consensus that while suing the companies may not be the perfect solution, it was at least a place to start.

The resolution claims there is evidence the companies bear some liability for the nation-wide opioid epidemic.

“The National Institute for Health has identified the manufacturers of certain … opioid medications 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 resolution reads.

While Iron County’s resolution doesn’t name specific manufacturers; Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, Endo Health Solutions and various subsidiaries — along with three doctors in Utah and California — were named in lawsuits filed by other Wisconsin counties, according to an Associated Press story in November.

“We vigorously deny these allegations and look forward to the opportunity to present our defense,” Purdue Pharma said in a statement quoted by the AP that also said the company is “deeply troubled by the opioid crisis and we are dedicated to being part of the solution.”

Endo Health’s statement in the story included patient safety in its “top priorities,” which also included those with chronic pain having access to “safe and effective therapeutic options” while preventing opioid abuse.

Johnson & Johnson was quoted as having not received the initial lawsuit from the counties but called allegations made in similar lawsuits as “legally and factually unfounded.”

Purdue makes OxyContin and Dilaudid and Endo produces Percocet and Percodan — according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel — while some of the other companies named in other counties’ suits make fentanyl products.

More than two dozen states, cities and counties around the county have filed lawsuits against the drug manufacturers and distributors the Journal Sentinel reported in early November.

Data from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services cited by Wisconsin Public Radio shows 1,031 Wisconsin residents died in 2016 from opioid overdoses, up from 872 in 2015.

The rate of Wisconsin’s deaths from opioid overdoses has close to doubled between 2006 and 2015, the Journal Sentinel reported using department of health statistics — from 5.9 deaths per 100,000 residents to 10.7 deaths per 100,000 residents.

In other action:

—Five members of the county’s new youth advisory board were sworn in and participated in their first county meeting. The advisory boards will participate in as many of the county board’s duties as possible, although their votes won’t actually count as they aren’t elected by county residents.

—Jason Laumann, with the Northwest Regional Planning Commission, gave a presentation on the county’s Asset Based Community Development Plan — which is being completed. The board then referred the plan back to the county’s planning committee for public hearings before it will be implemented.

—The board approved obtaining a obligation note necessary for borrowing money to pay for the reconstruction of Saxon Harbor after it was destroyed in a storm last summer. The board has already approved borrowing the funds, but the new approval was necessary to get the action into the minutes before interest rates increase.

—The board approved the 2018 forestry work plan.

—The board approved purchasing a section of railroad grade in the town of Mercer for $2,500 which has an existing county trail on it.

—The board passed a resolution thanking the various legislators who helped the county acquire a state stewardship grant to help with the reconstruction of Saxon Harbor.

—The board also approved a number of end-of-year budget adjustments totaling $793,163.

—The board directed various county officials — including representatives from the sheriff’s department, zoning department and corporation counsel — to meet with a group of Kimball residents to find a solution to the noise issues caused by a property owner’s use of loud snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles and other vehicles.


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