After years of litigation to hold the pharmaceutical industry accountable for the deadly abuse of prescription painkillers, payments from what could amount to more than $50 billion in court settlements have started to flow to states and communities to address the nation’s continuing opioid crisis.
But though the payments come with stacks of guidance outlining core strategies for drug prevention and addiction treatment, the first wave of awards is setting off heated debates over the best use of the money, including the role that law enforcement should play in grappling with a public health disaster.
States and local governments are designating millions of dollars for overdose reversal drugs, addiction treatment medication, and wound care vans for people with infections from injecting drugs. But law enforcement departments are receiving opioid settlement money for policing resources like new cruisers, overtime pay for narcotics investigators, phone-hacking equipment, body scanners to detect drugs on inmates and restraint devices.
“I have a great deal of ambivalence towards the use of the opioid money for that purpose,” said Chester Cedars, chairman of Louisiana’s advisory opioid task force and president of St. Martin Parish. The state’s directives say only “law enforcement expenditures related to the opioid epidemic,” added Mr. Cedars, a retired prosecutor. “That is wide open as to what that exactly means.”
On Monday, 133 addiction medicine specialists, legal aid groups, street outreach groups and other organizations released a list of suggested priorities for the funds. Their recommendations include housing for people in recovery and expanding access to syringe exchange programs, personal use testing strips for fentanyl and xylazine, and medication that treats addiction.
They expressly stated that no funds “should be spent on law enforcement personnel, overtime or equipment.”
“Law enforcement already gets a lot of funding, and I’m sure they would say it’s never enough,” said Tricia Christensen, an author of the proposed priorities, who is the policy director at Community Education Group, which has been tracking opioid settlement money across Appalachia. But the opioid money, she said, “is really unique.”
Groups that monitor opioid settlements use various criteria to estimate the total payout. But even employing the most conservative tabulation, the final amount could well be north of $50 billion when pending lawsuits are resolved, notably the multibillion-dollar Purdue bankruptcy plan, which the Supreme Court temporarily paused last week.
At first glance, that looks like a fabulous trove of money. In reality, it will be parceled out over 18 years and is already dwarfed by the behemoth dimensions of the opioid crisis, now dominated by illicit fentanyl and other drugs.
The spectacle of states as well as thousands of cities, counties and towns all struggling to determine the most effective uses of these desperately needed funds is raising many questions.
Underlying the wrangling is a push for greater transparency in awarding the money and a determination not to repeat the mistakes of the Big Tobacco settlement 25 years ago. State governments have used most of the $246 billion from tobacco companies to plug budget holes and pay for other projects, and reserved relatively little to redress nicotine-related problems.
Now, states and local governments have committees to determine appropriate allocation of the opioid money. Sheriffs and police officials comprise less than a fifth of the members on those task forces, according to a recent analysis by KFF Health News, Johns Hopkins University and Shatterproof, a national nonprofit that focuses on addiction.
But public sentiment in many communities favors ridding the streets of drug dealers as a means of abating the crisis.
When Samuel Sanguedolce, the district attorney of Luzerne County in Pennsylvania, presented his budget to the County Council in November, he made a pitch for some of the county’s settlement money, about $3.4 million so far.
“With 10 more detectives, I could arrest those cases around the clock,” he said, referring to drug dealers. “I think this is a good way to use money that resulted from this opioid crisis to assist those detectives without putting it on the taxpayers.”
“And I’ve asked not just for detectives,” he continued. “But hiring people, of course, costs money, in the way that they need guns and vests and computers and cars.”
In many areas of the country, the lines between law enforcement and health care can be somewhat blurred: Police and sheriffs’ departments are also emergency responders, trained to administer overdose reversal drugs. Louisiana is dedicating 20 percent of its opioid money to parish sheriffs.
Sheriff K.P. Gibson of Acadia Parish, who represents sheriffs on Louisiana’s opioid task force, said that he intended to use the $100,000 his department is set to receive for “medical needs” of people in the jail, including various opioid treatments and counseling. The goal, he said, is to help inmates become “productive citizens within our community,” once they are released.
Public health officials and addiction treatment specialists are also concerned about another use of the money: grants for faith-based rehab programs that prohibit federally approved medications like Suboxone and methadone, which blunt cravings for opioids.
“I would be open to a faith-based cancer program, but not one that doesn’t let you take effective medicines to treat the cancer,” said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, which has released its own guidance principles for the settlement funds.
Throughout the years of negotiating opioid settlements, lawyers for states, tribes and local governments and those defending drug distributors, manufacturers and pharmacy chains struggled to avoid the pitfalls that emerged from the Big Tobacco litigation.
This time, local governments have struck agreements with state attorneys general over the allocation of the money. Legislatures are largely excluded from most of the funds.
Johns Hopkins praised Rock County, Wis., as a jurisdiction that strove to get a full picture of local needs for the money: It put together a working group to review evidence-based literature and conducted surveys and meetings to elicit community suggestions.
In North Carolina, county governments receive 85 percent of the funds, which have reached nearly $161 million so far. Having signed onto the core principles worked up with the attorney general, the counties have great discretion in spending their allotments.
“When you look at who addresses the issues of the opioid epidemic, it’s addressed locally by E.M.S., social services and jails. Those are all county functions in North Carolina, so that’s why it made sense for them to get the bulk of the resources,” said Josh Stein, the North Carolina attorney general, who helped negotiate the national opioid settlements.
Each county is establishing its own priorities. Stanly County, he said, is setting up teams to reach people who have just survived overdoses, hoping to connect them with services. Mecklenburg County has directed some of its funding for post-recovery education and job-training programs.
Such uses can help to lift a community stricken by addiction, said Ms. Christensen, whose group monitors opioid settlements for 13 states. “I really subscribe to the idea that overdoses are often ‘deaths of despair’ — that the reason many folks spiral into chaotic drug use has a lot to do with what has happened to them and their lack of opportunities,” she said. “So how can we invest in the community to prevent that from happening generation after generation? That’s why I think community input is so important in this process.”
The groups that released the new set of priorities cited examples of promising use of the funds. Michigan’s plans include adding rooms in hospitals so that new mothers can stay with infants born with neonatal abstinence syndrome. Kentucky is giving $1 million to four legal aid groups to represent people with opioid-related cases.
“I was blown away by that,” said Shameka Parrish-Wright, executive director of VOCAL-KY, a community group that worked on the priorities documents. Ms. Parrish-Wright, a former candidate for Louisville mayor who had been addicted to drugs, homeless and incarcerated, added: “Those legal entities are really helpful in making sure we deal with paraphernalia charges and evictions. People coming out of treatment are sometimes discriminated against because of those charges and can’t get housing or jobs.”
VOCAL-KY has not applied for settlement money but works closely with groups that do. Its members attend meetings held by Kentucky’s opioid task force. “Knowing that Black and brown and poor white communities are dealing with it the worst, we pushed them to have another town hall in those communities,” Ms. Parrish-Wright said.
With Big Tobacco’s cautionary tale shadowing these debates, the issue of accountability looms. Who ensures that grantees spend their money appropriately? What sanctions will befall those who color outside the lines of their grants?
So far, the answers remain to be seen. Christine Minhee, a lawyer who runs the Opioid Settlement Tracker, which analyzes state approaches to spending the funds, noted that on that question, the voluminous legal agreements could be opaque.
“But between the lines, the settlement agreements themselves imply that the political process, rather than the courts, will bear the actual enforcement burden,” she said. “This means that the task of enforcing the spirit of the agreement — making sure that settlements are spent in ways that maximize lives saved — is left to the rest of us.”
Jan Hoffman writes about behavioral health and health law. Her wide-ranging subjects include opioids, tribes, reproductive rights, adolescent mental health and vaccine hesitancy. More about Jan Hoffman
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