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County-level opioid settlement spending – and who decides – still up for consideration

Each of Pennsylvania's 67 counties will receive at least $1 million dollars from a opioid settlement that implicates four pharmaceutical companies for their role in the nationwide epidemic.
Darwin Brandis / Getty Images
Each of Pennsylvania's 67 counties will receive at least $1 million dollars from a opioid settlement that implicates four pharmaceutical companies for their role in the nationwide epidemic.

Committees are still taking shape in some Pennsylvania counties to determine how to spend opioid settlement money. Discussions at local meetings have dictated whether or not members of the community directly affected by the opioid epidemic will be involved.

Pennsylvania will receive more than $2.2 billion in settlements with opioid distributors, retailers and manufacturers over 18 years, the state Attorney General's Office announced in December. That total is meant to account for how hard Pa. has been hit by the opioid epidemic. More than 5,100 Pennsylvanians died from drug overdoses in 2021, per the AG.

Lawsuits claimed that drugmakers and other corporations mislead doctors and the public about the addictive nature of prescription pain medications.

The first settlement payments started coming to counties last year. Lackawanna County already has more than $1 million from a $9.7 million settlement agreement from Johnson & Johnson and distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, McKesson. So far, Luzerne County has received $2.5 million out of more than $22 million from that first wave of settlements. Counties could see millions more in payouts from a second wave of settlements from manufacturers plus retailers CVS, Walmart and Walgreens.

Lackawanna County estimates nearly $7 million more could land in the county from those other agreements. Luzerne County Drug and Alcohol Administrator Ryan Hogan noted that exact totals for the additional settlement payouts have not yet been shared with counties.

Who decides in Lackawanna?

Since March, Lackawanna County has held three opioid settlement spending meetings. Members include the three county commissioners, the solicitor, chief financial officer, the chief public defender, and the drug and alcohol department director, plus representatives from the department of human services, the court of common pleas and the district attorney’s office.

The group may meet with families who have helped loved ones through court, prison and drug treatment for ideas on spending, according to May meeting minutes.

“We have only begun to identify subcommittees,” Durkin said in an email, “but once we identify them, we will reach out to the appropriate entities in the community to participate.”

To provide additional insights to the group, Lackawanna County also recently added someone with lived experience to their opioid committee, according to Barbara Durkin, director of the county’s drug and alcohol department.

Patrick Flynn, former candidate for the state House of Representatives, was named as a committee member in Lackawanna County last month. Flynn works with Project Manifesto, a company that provides mentorship and support for people in recovery from substance abuse. He’s been in recovery since 2014, according to a write-up by his employer.

Though no final decisions have been made on how to spend the money allocated to Lackawanna County so far, discussions have focused on housing for those in recovery as well as expanding treatment services for people who reenter the community from prison.

In an April meeting, the committee proposed using a portion of the settlement money for a dorm-style construction project in Mayfield, which would need approval from Pa.’s Opioid Misuse and Addiction Abatement Trust to ensure it meshes with remediation uses outlined in the settlement agreement. The building would “house a reentry population, primarily with substance use disorder” and add space for the department of human services, a courtroom and treatment providers.

The Lackawanna County opioid spending committee holds public meetings on the second Tuesday of every month at 11:30 a.m. in the Commissioners Conference Room, 5th floor, 123 Wyoming Avenue in Scranton. The next meeting is tomorrow, June 13.

Considerations in Luzerne

There’s still discussion in Luzerne County about if – and how many – people who have been impacted by opioid use disorder will serve on the decision-making committee, which has not officially formed.

In an April memo to county council, District Attorney Sam Sanguedolce proposed the formation of an opioid advisory committee: himself, one member of council, the county manager, the county drug and alcohol administrator, the human services division head, a provider or consumer representative and the court administrator.

On May 23, one member of council suggested that two people with firsthand experience in the opioid crisis serve on the board if only one council member is needed. Council had previously requested that three council members join the advisory group.

Sanguedolce also listed possible settlement money uses in the letter, including medication-assisted treatment in the county prison, prevention programs in schools, a 24-hour “warm hand off” system and additional staff to the Luzerne County Drug Task Force.

The state’s Opioid Trust would also need to approve any county spending on law enforcement agencies. Suitable types of prevention, according to the Attorney General, include law enforcement diversion programs, but not other agency spending.

Council is not expected to discuss the advisory group at Tuesday’s meeting, according to the agenda for June 13.

Wayne County

In Wayne County, a group has come together to discuss opioid settlement spending, but no decisions have been made, according to Chief Clerk Andrew Seder.

“We have an ad hoc committee of county management team members and it includes input from our Drug and Alcohol advisory board,” Seder said in an email. “But at this point we have not spent any of the money.”

Wayne County is expected to receive $2.2 million over 18 years from the first wave of opioid settlement agreements.

Representatives from several other local counties did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment on opioid settlement spending.

Tom Riese is a multimedia reporter and the local host for NPR's Morning Edition. He comes to NEPA by way of Philadelphia. He is a York County native who studied journalism at Temple University.
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