By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
Over 500 people in Milwaukee County have died from opioid overdoses this year, and there are still a few days left to go.
“Here are the facts,” Margaret Daun, the Milwaukee County corporation counsel, said during a press conference. “In 2002, Milwaukee County recorded 83 related to opioid abuse.
This year, we are on track to set yet another devastating record of over 500 deaths related to opioid abuse.”
Daun, along with Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley, County Board Chairwoman Marcelia Nicholson and Milwaukee County Clerk George Christenson, signed a $71 million opioid settlement agreement outside the Milwaukee County Courthouse, 901 N. 9th St., on Tuesday, Dec. 21.
Multiple districts filed suit against opioid makers in the Northern District of Ohio. As part of the settlement agreement, Milwaukee County is slated to receive $71 million over the 18 years. Duan noted that nearly $100 million will come into Milwaukee County due to the jurisdictions and other local municipalities that filed suit. Southeastern Wisconsin is expected to receive $141 million, she said.
This money will go toward opioid treatment, abatement and education.
“Through this settlement, lives will be saved,” Daun said. “Although very few of the criminals involved in those deaths in this epidemic will ever see the inside of a courtroom, we are ensuring that their corporations will pay.”
This epidemic extends beyond Milwaukee County, it impacts individuals across the state of all ages and socio-economic demographics, Crowley said.
“This settlement signals accountability for all the parties responsible after years of opioids devastating our communities and taking too many lives too soon,” he said.
Milwaukee County has been on the front lines of this battle, Crowley said, adding that the opioid epidemic has increased and intensified since the COVID-19 pandemic began. In 2019, the number of opioid related deaths was 418, in 2020, it was 554.
He noted that settlement helps put Milwaukee County in a better position to service Milwaukeeans struggling with opioid addiction. The Behavioral Health Division will help connect individuals to professionals, make it easier to seek residential treatment, increase assessment and telehealth services and increase public outreach, he said.
“As public servants, it is our duty to respond to a growing demand for prevention and treatment services,” he said.
Nicholson also spoke during the press conference.
“The opioid epidemic has touched all of us,” she said. “I’m sure we all know someone that has struggled with this disease and this addiction. Unfortunately, all too many of us have lost loved ones to this crisis.”
She continued, “There’s nothing we can do now to bring those loved ones back, but what we can do is hold pharmaceutical companies accountable for the pain and suffering they have caused families and this country.”
These funds will be put to good use, to fight the epidemic and bring justice to families and individuals, Nicholson added.
According to Daun, money will not go toward the police department or law enforcement.
“We cannot incarcerate our way out of an addiction epidemic,” she said.
For a long time, incarceration was viewed as the solution to addiction, but those policies have been racially discriminatory, Daun said. Instead, the focus will be on getting naloxone, which can be used to save lives during an overdose, in the hands of officers.
There will also be intergovernmental cooperation, Daun said, both in Milwaukee County and across Southeastern Wisconsin.
She added that the settlement will be used to achieve racial justice, social equity and community wellness by addressing the root causes of addiction, trauma and lack of access to health care.
In 2002, only three deaths in Milwaukee County were fentanyl related, Daun said. This year, that number is currently at 419.
“The deaths only tell part of the story,” she said.
There is remaining litigation with manufacturers and pharmacies, Daun said. Recently, Milwaukee County filed a suit against McKinsey & Company, a consultant for Purdue Pharma.
The settlement signatures are due by the end of the year and the funds are expected to be released in the first or second quarter of 2022. But the fight is not over, Daun said.