Millions of dollars are flowing into Connecticut each year to help combat opioid addiction, the result of major victories against drug distributors and manufacturers.
How that money will be spent remains a question, though.
Attorney General William Tong told an audience of first responders, local officials and advocates Tuesday that Connecticut is receiving $26 million from a settlement with drug distributors, money that will continue for 18 years.
The state in the near future also expects to start seeing its share, $95 million in total, from a settlement with Purdue Pharma, makers of the opioid pain medication OxyContin.
The money is flowing through the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, but with little guidance from the state currently on how to spend the money.
“DMHAS does a great job, but there’s no overarching state infrastructure, right, machine for treatment, prevention, addiction science,” Tong said during a conversation at the Glastonbury office of Amplify, a nonprofit provider of behavioral health services. “It’s all of you — it’s the nonprofits, it’s the cities and towns, it’s the law enforcement.”
To help disperse the funds, the legislature created the Opioid Settlement Advisory Committee. The board, composed of municipal leaders and political appointees, reviews applications and decides how to disperse the majority of the state’s cut from the two settlements.
“My job is to get you the money,” Tong said. “What you do with it and what the state does with it is — I don’t have that authority. The legislature and the governor and all of you do.”
The structure potentially allows for experts to have a lot of say in the best ways to use the funds, but local officials also worry the competitive environment might drown out some of those voices.
“It seems at this point right now, it’s kind of a first come, first serve basis,” said Robyn Nichols, a principal program manager with the Capital Region Council of Governments, or CRCOG.
Nichols said part of the issue is making sure municipalities and nonprofit organizations know how to get money from OSAC.
That’s why Tong met with those officials Tuesday, and he told them he’s had similarly informational conversations around the state.
Connecticut expects to receive roughly $500 million over 18 years from a settlement with distributors, but that funding is doled out in a specific structure.
Municipalities will receive 15% directly, money meant to get them to sign on to the settlement, and the state will see an equal amount. The remaining 70% will be distributed by OSAC.
That money has to be spent on so-called abatement, forward-looking efforts around treatment, prevention and addiction sciences.
Tong said that language is a response to criticism of the way the state has used the money it continues to receive from a settlement with the tobacco industry.
He also said this method is a “trial run” for future settlements.
The structure not only requires the state to use the money on new efforts — instead of being treated as a recovery for past expenses —, it also creates the potential for nonprofit service providers and municipal leaders to share ideas.
Some people in attendance Tuesday even said they expect this to happen. OSAC’s membership includes municipal leaders, addiction care experts and either people in recovery from addiction or family members of those who died from it.
Tong also told the crowd, though, that the structure means groups will “need to advocate for yourselves” to get funding. That includes working with local representatives and pushing town leaders.
Tong said he continued to hear from municipal leaders while negotiating the settlements who said their towns are immune to the opioid crisis.
“Bullshit — this is a problem in every community,” he said.
Nichols wasn’t the only one with questions about how the money will be spent, though, with others in attendance pointing out the settlement gives little guidance.
John Lally, co-founder and President of Today I Matter, said victims’ families continue to wonder whether they’ll get any compensation.
“A lot of families have felt that if it wasn’t for families that lost someone fighting this from Day One, we would never be where we are today,” he said. Lally started Today I Matter in remembrance of his son, Tim, who died from a heroin overdose in 2016.
Tong said groups can push OSAC to spend some of the funding on support groups, but getting compensation for victims’ families was a challenge because, in part, the number of victims is just too big.
“That’s a fact — it just mathematically doesn’t work,” he said. He also noted the settlement with Purdue has some funding and many families have their own lawsuit.
Lally said he was satisfied with Tong’s answer, but noted some families are looking for direct compensation.
Meanwhile, Nichols said the competition for grants means organizations like CRCOG have to get the word out to municipalities and their nonprofit partners.
“I think people need to be creative and ask questions,” she also said.
Some of those questions include sharing best practices. A few attendees said they want more guidance on age-appropriate education, pointing to a recent incident where East Granby closed its schools this spring after a mixture of fentanyl and crack cocaine were found on an elementary school bus.
Hebron Fire Chief Peter Starkel said he also wants to see more education and support for families whenever first responders help someone with an overdose.
“Handing them a flier that talks about the dangers of opiates doesn’t cut it,” he said. “We need to be able to give them something that they can act on quickly, someone they can contact quickly.”