Split board votes to join counties’ opioid suit

by Emmitt B. Feldner
of The Review staff

SHEBOYGAN – The County Board Tuesday agreed to enter a potential lawsuit by counties across the state against some opioid manufacturers.

Although all supervisors agreed that the opioid epidemic is costing the county and its citizens, they were not unanimous that a suit against pharmaceutical manufacturers is the right way to go to recoup some of those costs.

“I agree we’ve got a problem, but I don’t think this is the answer to the problem,” Supervisor Richard Bemis stated. “It sounds to me like a law firm trying to find business.”

“I do not want Sheboygan County to not be on the list if this should proceed in a positive manner,” County Board Chair Tom Wegner responded.

The board voted 18-6 to enter the legal action, with supervisors Mark Winkel, Greg Weggeman, Keith Abler, Thomas Epping, Steve Bauer, Brian Hilbelink and Al Bosman joining Bemis in voting no. Supervisor Henry Nelson was absent.

The issue was presented at the Wisconsin Counties Association conference late last month, Wegner explained in a letter to the board.

The WCA is seeking as many counties as possible to be part of the action, which presently is in an exploratory state with several law firms engaged in determining if there is cause for a lawsuit.

“It has been emphasized to us that there is a strategic element of timing involved in initiating this litigation,” Wegner elaborated in his letter. “The sooner Sheboygan County and other counties come on board, the better.”

As a result, Wegner and the Executive Committee requested the board to act immediately on the resolution rather than refer it to another committee – in this case, the Health and Human Services Committee.

“I feel bad for those who succumb to opioids,” Epping told his colleagues. “But it’s not necessarily the product that creates these problems, but like tobacco or firearms, it’s the operator or user.”

“I’ve never heard a gun manufacturer tell me ‘our bullet will not kill you’ but these companies tell people their drugs won’t kill you,” Supervisor

Edward Procek responded.

“How do we know who we’re going after?” Supervisor Brian Hoffmann asked, noting that the explanatory materials refer to ‘certain opioid manufacturers.’

“Does that leave any manufacturers to create these for hospitals and legal use,” he wondered.

“I hope the companies we’re suing aren’t going to go out of business and are working on a cure for cancer, diabetes or other things,” Bemis added.

Weggeman, meanwhile, contended that the suit is directed at the wrong parties.

“It’s not the drug companies that created the problems, it was the drug distributors – a totally different group of companies,” Weggeman stated.

Supervisor Charles Conrardy emphasized that, like the other counties involved in the suit, opioid abuse is costing Sheboygan County, both in dollars and in lives.

That will continue and grow, he said, “Unless we do something as a group.”

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