Republican-led budget panel objects to plans for opioid settlement funds

Wisconsin will receive $36M in fiscal year 2025 from a national lawsuit against the pharmaceutical industry

A naloxone box on UW-Oshkosh's campus for people overdosing from opioids. 
Wisconsin Voices for Recovery has installed naloxone boxes across UW-Oshkosh’s campus for people overdosing from opioids. Photo courtesy of the UW-Madison Department of Family Medicine and Community Health

Republicans on the Legislature’s budget committee have blocked a plan from Gov. Tony Evers’ administration for how to spend millions of dollars from a legal settlement with opioid manufacturers and distributors. 

Wisconsin is due to receive $750 million in total funding through 2038 from a national lawsuit against the pharmaceutical industry. The state Department of Health Services released a plan for how to spend approximately $36 million in fiscal year 2025.  

Under a law enacted in 2021, 70 percent must go directly to the counties and municipalities that joined the lawsuits. DHS is required to submit their plan for spending the remaining 30 percent to the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee for approval. 

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The committee has objected to the plans three years in a row. The previous two years, lawmakers ultimately approving variations of the plans.

“An objection has been raised to this request and a meeting with (the JFC) will be scheduled,” committee co-chairs Sen. Howard Marklein and Rep. Mark Born wrote in a letter released Monday. “Therefore, the request is not approved at this time.” 

The letter did not outline the nature of the objection or any details of a future meeting. 

Evers spokesperson Britt Cudaback criticized the move on social media, referencing recent GOP votes that have held up funding for western Wisconsin hospitals and PFAS grants.

“Republicans are on Day 55 of refusing to release crisis response resources to stabilize healthcare access in Western Wisconsin, Day 293 of refusing to release funding to fight PFAS statewide, and are now delaying critical resources to respond to the opioid crisis,” she wrote. “Shameful.” 

The proposed opioid settlement spending included $15 million for peer and family support programs for people struggling with opioid addiction, and community prevention programs. It also included $6 million for tribal nations in Wisconsin, $3.5 million for overdose reversal drug naloxone and $1 million for fentanyl test strips. 

DHS spokesperson Elizabeth Goodsitt said the department was disappointed by the development. 

“In an effort to avoid an objection, we met with every member of the committee, detailing the reasons that informed each of the strategies and responding to all questions raised. Each of our proposed strategies sought to sustain and grow those which were approved by the committee in past years and provide a voice to Wisconsinites impacted by the opioid epidemic,” Goodsitt wrote in an email to WPR. 

The amount of funds available to Wisconsin varies each year based on the terms of the settlement. In fiscal year 2023, it was $31 million. That amount decreased to $8 million in fiscal year 2024.

With less funds available last year, DHS proposed spending $4 million on narcan and fentanyl test strips. The committee approved $2.9 million. DHS also included $3 million for capital projects and $1 million for school prevention programs in its proposal. The committee did not fund either, instead opting to fund room and board at residential treatment centers, and medication assisted treatment at the level of the prior year. 

“I’m confident that the funds will eventually be approved. But how quickly that happens remains to be seen,” Attorney General Josh Kaul told WPR. 

Kaul, whose state Department of Justice joined the opioid lawsuit on behalf of the state of Wisconsin, said DHS developed its plan in a thorough process that included roundtables across the state with people on the front lines of the opioid epidemic. 

“But then when this gets to the Joint Finance Committee, an objection happens behind closed doors. Decisions are made behind closed doors, and we won’t know what the nature of the objection is or what ultimately will be passed until the Joint Finance Committee meets,” he said.  “I think that these kinds of discussions should be happening in public.”

Committee chairs Marklein, R-Spring Green, and Born, R-Beaver Dam, were not available for interviews. Marklein’s office released a statement to WPR on their behalf. 

“The Joint Committee on Finance is engaging with stakeholders to ensure our state’s plan for using these settlement dollars takes the most effective approach to preventing opioid use disorders and mitigating the impact of this ongoing crisis in our state,” the statement said.