Federal lawsuit contends deceptive marketing

By Jason Arndt

When the state Department of Health Services revealed Kenosha County ranked No. 1 in heroin-related deaths in Wisconsin, according to a recent study, county agencies acknowledged the need to address the epidemic in all levels of government.

While the county received a state grant to fund Narcan for local agencies, and a federal grant to bolster treatment programs this year, the opioid epidemic has put a strain on county health and law enforcement resources.

Kimberly Breunig

The Kenosha County Board acknowledged the strain of resources, which led to its decision to join other Wisconsin counties in a federal lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies, according to a filing in U.S. District Court by Crueger Dickinson LLC.

Crueger Dickinson LLC, of Whitefish Bay, is one of three law firms filing the lawsuit on behalf of the involved counties.

The other two are von Briesen and Roper, S.C., along with Simmons, Hanley, Conroy LLC.

Kenosha County Board Chairwoman Kimberly Breunig, of Trevor, said the lawsuit comes at no cost to taxpayers.

“The county entered into an agreement that has no financial burden to the county. Our corporation counsel vetted the agreement to make sure there would be no adverse affect on the county or its residents,” Breunig said.

Manufacturers listed in complaint are Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, Endo Health Solutions, Inc. and their subsidiaries.

The lawsuit alleges makers of prescription painkillers misled the public through deceptive marketing campaigns, to which it attributes the nation’s opioid overdose epidemic.

Additionally, the complaint contends drug manufacturers knew about the dangers of painkillers, but opted not to disclose the side effects to boost their profit margin.

Kenosha County, like the other 47 Wisconsin counties involved in the suit, seeks financial compensation from the defendants listed on the document for cost of services, like rescue and emergency calls, law enforcement intervention and court proceedings caused by the opioid epidemic.

“If information is brought forth to prove that pharmaceutical companies and individuals misled any of our physicians on the effects of certain drugs, we need to hold them accountable for their part in the epidemic,” Breunig said.

According to a resolution passed by the Kenosha County Board at a Nov. 7 meeting, the three law firms will assume full costs of the lawsuit, and if they win, would receive 25 percent of the total award with the rest going to the plaintiffs.

Kenosha mirrors national epidemic
In the 75-page court filing, the lawsuit contends Kenosha County and the state are not immune to the national crisis.

“In 2015, the majority of opioid-related deaths in Wisconsin involved prescription opioids,” the lawsuit states. “Indeed, the number of Wisconsin citizens who die as a result of drug overdoses now exceeds the number of those who die from motor vehicle crashes, as well as suicide, breast cancer, colon cancer, firearms, influenza, or HIV.”

From 2013 until 2015, Kenosha County reported 103 people died from opiate overdoses. In 2016, the county said there were 35 overdose deaths.

While the Kenosha County Medical Examiner’s Office reported an uptick in overdoses, there was an increase in cases at local emergency rooms, the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit alleges 248 hospital encounters related to opioid poisoning happened from 2012 through 2014.

Hospitalizations grew exponentially in 2016, when 979 Kenosha County residents or visitors went to the emergency room for opioid-related reasons, according to the lawsuit.

Breunig, who said the board recognized the epidemic, started discussions with local law enforcement agencies and health officials related to overdoses when problems grew.

“The County Board has been having discussions with Human Services, Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney for about 2 to 3 years, knowing that the epidemic was getting worse in the county,” Breunig said.

“The board began recognizing the problem when Robert Zapf was the DA, but we didn’t know what could be done.”

After Zapf did not seek re-election, former Deputy District Attorney Michael Graveley was voted in as the new district attorney, which expedited the process, according to Breunig.

“That is where the bill of credit lies,” she said.

With support from the District Attorney’s Office, in addition to help from Human Services, the County Board began to develop a clearer vision for the solution.

Lawsuit examined in September
While the board had the support of local officials, it discovered another solution in September, when several county supervisors attended a Wisconsin Counties Association conference in the Wisconsin Dells.

One of the presentations, according to Breunig, was the possible statewide lawsuit against drug manufacturers.

Breunig, who attended the presentation with supervisors Boyd Frederick, Jeff Wamboldt and Andy Berg, learned the lawsuit mirrors a filing against tobacco companies years earlier.

Unlike the tobacco settlement, where only states saw benefits, the drug lawsuit seeks to benefit each county involved.

“In order for the counties to benefit from any lawsuit, we would need to enter into it ourselves,” Breunig said.

According to Wisconsin Public Radio, about two-thirds of Wisconsin counties have joined the lawsuit.


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