Republican leaders of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee blocked a plan Wednesday from the state health department that would spend $31 million awarded to the state in a settlement to address the opioid crisis.
The budget committee’s co-chairs didn’t explain their reason for delaying the plan, which the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) created to distribute Wisconsin’s share of the settlement states reached with drug manufacturers accused of fueling a national epidemic of addiction to opioids.
The finance committee’s action Wednesday means that the agency cannot spend the $6 million the state has already received from the settlement. Without a plan approved by the panel, the state also will be unable to distribute $25 million more that Wisconsin will receive by the end of 2022.
In a statement Wednesday, the committee’s co-chairs, Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) and Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green), said they “have been working with stakeholders to ensure we are investing in impactful programs without duplicating our efforts.”
The statement did not identify alleged faults in the DHS plan, which was submitted July 28. Born and Marklein added that they “will swiftly improve the plan to promptly distribute these funds.”
Gov. Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul issued a statement rebuking the delay.
“Wisconsinites across our state have felt firsthand the effects of the opioid epidemic on their loved ones, friends, and neighbors, and these families and communities need these funds now to fight the opioid epidemic and get resources to folks who need our help,” Evers stated. “The opportunity to invest millions into getting people treatment, support, and services does not come along every day. For these legislators to turn their backs on the people of Wisconsin, especially given increases in substance misuse and the mental and behavioral health challenges our state is facing today in the wake of the pandemic, it simply defies logic.”
Kaul and DHS officials conducted a briefing earlier this month outlining details of the spending plan.
The finance committee co-chairs previously rejected a draft of the plan submitted in April, before Wisconsin was given the dollar amounts of the state’s share. The lawmakers told the agency to resubmit the plan when the amounts were finalized.
The law enacted in 2021 to govern how the settlement money is distributed requires the Department of Health Services (DHS) to submit the plan to the Joint Finance Committee for a 14-day “passive review,” allowing any lawmaker to anonymously object to the plan’s terms. Without an objection, a spending plan subject to the passive review process can take effect without further action by the Legislature.
Wisconsin’s total share of the settlement is expected to total more than $280 million over nearly two decades, which will be distributed to 87 local governments that also took part in the lawsuit. Another $120 million, along with $9.6 million in restitution money, will go to DHS directly to address the opioid epidemic.
This story was written by Erik Gunn, deputy editor at the Wisconsin Examiner, where this story first appeared.