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Counties Drive Opioid Funds to Mitigate Damages from Deadly Epidemic

By Joe Mahoney
Contributing Author

In the aftermath of last year's historic opioid settlement, New York county governments have built a framework for targeting that money to where it can be best used to serve communities impacted by narcotics addiction.

From the first year of the funding, New York has received $192.8 million from the national legal settlement with pharmaceutical companies. The money has been flowing to support a range of services, including treatment, harm reduction, prevention and recovery programs, all ways of addressing the harm caused by the opioid epidemic and wave of overdoses.

"Throughout this death-dealing epidemic, New York county governments have been on the front lines in responding to the crisis of fatal overdoses and intense pressures on the mental health system caused by drug dependence," Stephen J. Acquario, director of the New York State Association of Counties, stated.

"With the availability of this new funding stream, our counties have stepped up in many ways to ensure these dollars are being made available to the organizations and programs best suited to reverse the harm resulting from this terrible scourge of addiction," said Acquario, who also recognized the leadership of Governor Kathy Hochul and Attorney General Letitia “Tish” James. Both, according to Acquario, have made it a public policy priority to support those most devastated by the opioid addiction crisis.

The county governments along with other stakeholders through which the funds flow in New York rely on the recommendations made by the state Opioid Settlement Fund Advisory Board. Through legislation enacted in 2022, the advisory board was established under the state Office of Addiction Services.

According to state officials, all of the nearly $193 million awarded to New York from the first year of the national funding stream has now been made available. Out of that funding, some $64 million has been made available for regional abatements, with county governments providing input as to how the local money would be awarded.

The regional amounts were distributed to each county based on population, overdose death rates, and mental health and equity indicators. This formula was negotiated with input by Attorney General James, one of the leading state attorneys’ generals to bring lawsuits against the pharmaceutical companies.

“Counties have been on the front lines of this addiction crisis from the beginning. It’s a public health emergency that impacts public safety, court system, mental health services, and our medical examiners’ offices—all of which are county-level departments and our employees have been battling for decades to stem its impact,” said Albany County Executive Dan McCoy, president of NYSAC and president of the County Executives of America.

Putnam County Executive Kevin Byrne had been a state assemblyman at the time he and other New York policymakers were first discussing how funding coming from the national settlement with the pharmaceutical industry could be put to the best use in New York.

"We talked about how the whole point of the litigation was to help right the wrongs that were done by some of the bad actors in the pharmaceutical industry," Byrne recalled when reached at his office in Carmel.

"We wanted to make sure it can be used to treat and assist those who have been harmed, and that it would not be used to plug budget gaps or deficits or anything else," Byrne added.

Putnam County, after setting up a Request for Proposals process for organizations seeking the more than $700,000 available in the county, has decided to divide that money up among five local organizations that submitted the most impressive applications for awards.

The proposals were evaluated by individuals from Putnam County’s Department of Mental Health, Social Services & Youth Bureau (DMHSS), the Department of Purchasing, Legislator Amy Sayegh, as well as community volunteers.

Byrne said he wanted to ensure the decisions were free of political considerations, with the funding going to the most deserving organizations in the county.

"We didn't think it was appropriate to give it all to just one nonprofit," Byrne said. "We have a lot of great organizations here. They do important work to help those with co-occurring disorders, or are dealing with substance abuse and mental health needs. So we opened up the process."

Similarly, Onondaga County has channeled money from its $3.7 million share of the settlement proceeds to diverse organizations offering support and services to people struggling with addiction, according to the office of Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon,

For instance, a local theater group, Red House, received $300,000 to produce live performances aimed at warning children about the dangers of narcotics use.

Catholic Charities was awarded $750,000, to expand access to treatment and recovery services for residents of homeless shelters.

In addition to those groups, the Onondaga County District Attorney’s Office reeled in $340.0000 to hire staff to prosecute accused drug traffickers. Meanwhile, Crouse Hospital was awarded $450,000 to increase addiction treatment services.

McMahon said he recognized the importance of taking what he called a "comprehensive approach" to the multi-faceted impacts from the opioid epidemic.

"It's important to have a lot of pro-active education - and get to young people so they avoid this," McMahon said. "It certainly needs to continue to support treatment. But the reality also is we need to prosecute opioid dealers and support law enforcement, specifically so that the district attorney has the resources for putting the bad people behind bars for pushing poison out on the streets."

The Onondaga County organizations selected to receive the funding were chosen by an advisory group that included experts from Upstate Medical University and Syracuse University.

NYSAC's goal of keeping the opioid settlement money flowing to New York counties is shared by the leadership of the New York State Association of County Health Officials.

That group's executive director, Sarah Ravenhall, pointed out local health departments, throughout the overdose epidemic, have been playing key roles in providing prevention and harm reduction services.

"It is imperative that settlement dollars continue to flow to the counties and local health departments to sustain their efforts," Ravenhall stated. "The emergence of synthetic opioids and fentanyl additives such as xylazine are compounding the danger of overdose to people who use drugs; therefore, harm reduction strategies and public health-focused solutions are central to saving lives."

Preliminary state data indicates New York experienced more than 6,300 overdose deaths in 2022. Opioids were linked to more than three-quarters of those deaths.

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