Health: Towns Urged To Form Committees To Guide Use Of Opioid Settlement Funds

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Health , Addiction

Massachusetts cities and towns will share 40 percent of the half a billion dollars the state received from the $26 billion federal opioid settlement. According to state guidelines, the money must be spent on prevention, harm reduction, recovery and treatment programs related to opioid abuse.

Officials from the Barnstable County Department of Human Services are urging local towns to form substance abuse committees to guide expenditure of the settlement funds.

“One of the unique benefits of this funding source is that it has longevity,” Mandi Speakman, deputy director of the county department, told the Chatham Select Board recently. “It really gives you the opportunity to be thoughtful over a long period of time.”

The payments will be made annually over the next 17 years, with a double payment this year, Speakman said. Over that period, Chatham is slated to receive $354,356; Harwich, $602,243; Brewster, $270,070; and Orleans, $196,602. The initial payment, which must be spent by June 30, will see Chatham receive $39,850; Harwich, $67,726; Brewster, $30,371; and Orleans, $22,109.

As part of the larger federal case brought against opioid manufacturers and distributors, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey negotiated a $500 million settlement with Johnson and Johnson, which manufactured and marketed opioids, as well as pharmaceutical distributors Cardinal, MacKesson and AmerisourceBergen. According to a background memo from the county department of human services, the settlement “holds accountable several corporations that contributed to the over- prescription of opioids in Massachusetts and brings needed relief to people struggling with substance use disorder.”

The money can be expended under seven broad categories designed “to give communities as much opportunity to figure out what works for them, because it's going to be different from town to town,” Speakman said. The money can go toward opioid use disorder treatment; supporting people in treatment and recovery; connections to care; harm reductions; addressing the needs of residents involved in the criminal justice system; supporting pregnant or parenting women, their families and babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome; and prevention of the misuse of opioids and prevention education.

The county's substance abuse council and advisory board has compiled a set of best practices within those categories, including such recommendations as addressing gaps in youth services; lowering barriers to treatment and access to Narcan; promoting recovery support groups and alternatives; and creating a recovery support navigator role within the town.

“The recommendations are meant as a starting point,” Speakman said.

The state is encouraging communities to pool funds to make as big an impact as possible, Speakman said, especially for individuals and families who were affected by the opioids. The money can supplement existing services but it can't supplant funds already being spent in those areas, she added.

“You have 17 years of assured funding, so you want to think long term,” she said.

The need to find programs to deal with opioid addiction and its fallout is not going away, said select board member Shareen Davis. There are existing resources available, including local nonprofits, as well as the town's human services committee to help identify viable expenditures, especially for this year's funds, which must be spent in the next nine months.

“That's not a lot of time,” she said. She also suggested partnering with Harwich and working with the Monomoy Regional School District to develop education and treatment programs.

In a discussion in Harwich last month, Selectman Julie Kavanagh suggested towns could collaborate on mental health programs. “There is a massive need for mental health [programs] on Cape Cod,” agreed Harwich Board of Health member Kevin Dupont. “There are not enough professionals.” Police Chief David Guilemette noted that the Dennis police department has three clinicians under contract who work with both the public and officers. A good use of the opioid settlement funds would be to hire a mental health director to work as an advocate and with police, agreed Health Department Director Katie O'Neill.

Health board chair Sharon Pfleger said the selectmen should form a group to “pull all these things together. We need structure before we can start working on the problem. There are families out there that do not know what resources” are available.”

The Harwich board agreed to charge Selectman Mary Anderson to work with department heads to develop a substance abuse group. In Chatham, the select board voted to ask the town's human services committee to discuss short-term funding possibilities and to start working on a longer term plan for the funds.

“Whatever way you go, the county is interested in supporting communities as much as they can,” Speakman said.

William F. Galvin contributed to this story.