‘A different level of stupid’: Millions to combat opioid crisis held up by GOP committee, Democrats pressure colleagues to act

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MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Millions awarded to the state to tackle the opioid crisis are being held up by Republicans who control the budget committee because they disagree with a plan proposed by health officials on how to spend it.

Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee recently rejected the Wisconsin Department of Health Services' spending proposal for $31 million to address the ongoing opioid crisis.

A portion of those funds, $6 million, was awarded to the state in July in part of a settlement reached with drug manufacturers for their role in the opioid epidemic. The rest of the $25 million is anticipated to arrive by the end of the year.

DHS introduced a three-phase approach on how to distribute the funding, the first phase would spend $3 million on Narcan, $2 million on fentanyl test strips and $1 million on drug prevention efforts.

All 12 Republicans who serve on JFC opposed phase one last week, which has resulted in Democrats touring the state in an attempt to put pressure on their colleagues to release the funding.

"The Republicans who objected to this are at a different level of stupid right now and it's dangerous," said Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach, who serves on the committee.

The Republican co-chairs of the committee turned down CBS 58's requests for an interview after rejecting the opioid spending plan and declined to offer alternative proposals.

Instead, co-chairs Rep. Mark Born and Sen. Howard Marklein issued a statement.

“The Joint Committee on Finance has a responsibility to ensure these funds are utilized in a way that makes the strongest impact for Wisconsinites -- not just rubber stamp, whatever incomplete plan Attorney General Kaul and Governor Evers’ administration gives us," Born and Marklein said.

“We are working diligently with colleagues and stakeholders to improve the deficiencies of the plan and give consideration to programs that were not included in the original plan."

Attorney General Josh Kaul slammed Republicans' opposition and said the more time that goes by, more lives will be at risk.

"This epidemic is having an impact on Wisconsin right now and we need to get these resources to Wisconsinites as soon as possible," Kaul said.

Kaul was joined by DHS Secretary Karen Timberlake, who said she has yet to hear from the co-chairs on a revised plan.

Timberlake added her agency met with all members on JFC to review their spending proposal, which was first submitted in April. By July, it was revised and Timberlake said the committee had about two weeks to review it.

"We did receive a few questions and we made some adjustments and we have received no further communication about what is still lacking in the updated plan," Timberlake said.

Erpenbach encouraged Republicans to release at minimum the $6 million now and then later debate what to do with the remaining funds.

"The idea that Republicans said no, we want to take a further look at this when someone is going to die tonight…I mean…hopefully it's nobody they know," said Erpenbach.

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