Wisconsin counties asked to join 'Big Pharma' lawsuit

Interim Sauk County Corporation Counsel Debra O'Rourke says she will gather more information before recommending whether the county should join a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies.

News Republic file photo

Sauk County may join in a multi-county lawsuit that would seek to hold large pharmaceutical companies responsible for the nation’s opioid epidemic.

Following a brief discussion Tuesday, the Sauk County Board’s Executive and Legislative Committee took no action on the matter. Officials will seek additional information before making a final decision about whether to join the litigation.

Interim Sauk County Corporation Counsel Debra O’Rourke told the committee that attorneys with the Wisconsin firm von Briesen & Roper presented plans for the lawsuit during the Wisconsin Counties Association annual conference in September.

“The whole basis for the lawsuit is that they’re alleging that the big pharmacy companies essentially were deceptive in that they were promoting aggressively that opioids were safe and not addictive, and that they could be used for long-term use, when there was simply no research to back that up,” O’Rourke said.

Opioids include prescription painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin, as well as the illegal drug heroin. Addiction to legally prescribed opioids can lead some to begin using the illicit form.

O’Rourke said the firms handling the suit would require data from human services and law enforcement agencies to demonstrate expenses the county has incurred as a result of the epidemic. It is not clear how much that research may cost, O’Rourke said, and the firms would collect 25 percent of a potential settlement.

O’Rourke said she plans to speak with Andrew Phillips, one of the attorneys handling the lawsuit, in the near future to learn more. Phillips could not be reached for comment before deadline Tuesday.

“There’s a lot of questions to be answered before the county makes a decision on this,” O’Rourke.

The Wood and Price county boards approved litigation engagement agreements with the law firms during meetings last month. The resolutions note that county staff will be expected to assist the firms, but do not list anticipated costs.

A pamphlet distributed by the firms says that from 1999 to 2013, the amount of prescription opioids dispensed in the U.S. nearly quadrupled. In 2015, opioid sales generated $10 billion in revenue for large pharmaceutical companies, according to the firms.

“While Pharma was raking in profits, county governments have been forced to spend a significant amount of money combating this epidemic,” the pamphlet states.

Sauk County Board Chair Marty Krueger said during Tuesday’s meeting that the opioid epidemic has had a tremendous financial impact on individuals and counties. He said after officials gather more information, he may ask the committee to forward a resolution to the full board authorizing the county’s involvement in the lawsuit.

“As much as folks want us to move forward with this, I think we need to do it in a measured approach and figure out if we belong there,” Krueger said.

Follow Tim Damos on Twitter @timdamos

Reporter for the Baraboo News Republic.