State’s budget-writing committee blocks DHS plans to spend opioid funds

MADISON, Wis. — Republican legislators on the powerful budget-writing committee gave few details on why an anonymous member of the committee blocked the Department of Health Services’ plan to spend funds won from an opioid lawsuit.

The action to block the plan was taken yesterday, according to a release from the two top Republicans on the Joint Committee on Finance.

“We will swiftly improve the plan to promptly distribute these funds,” Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) and Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) wrote in a statement. “We have been working with stakeholders to ensure that we are investing in impactful programs without duplicating our efforts.”

Neither legislator was available when asked for an interview.

Attorney General Josh Kaul, a Democrat who represented the state in the lawsuit, was frustrated by the decision to block the plan.

“I certainly don’t want to see the Legislature playing political games to stop these funds from getting to communities that need them,” Kaul said. “We don’t even know yet why the Joint Finance Committee is opposing this plan. I think Wisconsinites deserve an explanation and the Joint Finance Committee should be clear about why they’re taking the steps they are.”

The state will receive a total of $400 million from the suit, disbursed over the next 16 years. DHS will receive 30% of those funds and expects to use it to bolster treatment infrastructure in the state.

“The need for treatment exists statewide — it just looks a little different when we compare our urban to rural areas,” said Paul Krupski, opioids initiative director for DHS.

Rural areas might suffer from lack of access, he said, but urban areas may suffer from too high of demand. Part of the state funds would go toward building improvements, which could mean renovating old facilities so they are better equipped to handle the opioid epidemic, or even add on to additional facilities.

“We heard from providers who have very strong facilities currently operating, but the need is so great that they would like to expand,” Krupski said.

The rest of the funds will go to local governments to help their efforts, which Krupski said the state hopes to work symbiotically with.

Part of those efforts includes how the state collects and shares data on opioid overdoses. Currently, DHS releases this data on a weekly basis, but Krupski said the agency wants to use some of the funds to make that daily.

“[It’s about] notifying partners with a more real-time data piece so that they can have a better community response and let other partners in their communities know that, ‘Hey, for whatever reason, we’re seeing a spike and these are additional steps that we could be taking right now.'”

DHS received an initial $6 million disbursement last month, but the full $31 million it is expected to see by the end of the year is currently in limbo because of the Joint Finance Committee.

This oversight is not uncommon however, due to laws passed in the waning days of the Walker administration, the Legislature’s budget committee generally is allowed to weigh in over how the state spends money won in lawsuits. An additional law was signed last year that grants the Joint Finance Committee specific oversight over this opioid case.

“The Legislature has insisted on having this oversight, but it’s not a good process,” Kaul said. “It’s slowing down resources getting to our communities, and you get legislators who really have no expertise in public health who are second guessing decisions that were made by the Department of Health Services.”