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UPDATE: With Luzerne County facing opioid spending deadline, WBRE/WYOU proposes nearly $1M plan

WBRE/WYOU Account Executive Megan Mance and Vice President and General Manager Andrew Wyatt presented the $985,500 proposal before Luzerne County Council on June 25.
Council livestream / Service Electric
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Luzerne County Community Channel
WBRE/WYOU Account Executive Megan Mance and Vice President and General Manager Andrew Wyatt presented the $985,500 proposal before Luzerne County Council on June 25.

***Updated July 9. 10:52 a.m.:
Luzerne County Council is expected to vote Tuesday on a nearly $1 million messaging campaign that would use opioid settlement funds.

Local Nexstar Media Group stations WBRE and WYOU, which run the website PAhomepage.com, proposed the $985,500 plan in front of council on June 25. The bulk of the request would place targeted ads warning about the dangers of opioids on cable TV, streaming platforms and on social media.

Counties throughout Pennsylvania have used the money on drug recovery programs, addiction specialists and treatment in prisons as well as messaging campaigns.

Luzerne County Council will open the floor to public comment when the session begins at 6 p.m. at the Luzerne County Courthouse, or via computer or phone.

original article:
Luzerne County is rushing to spend more than $1 million in opioid settlement funds ahead of an August deadline and a local media outlet has put forward a plan that would see them receive most of that amount.

If the money isn't spent, county officials must return it to the state.

“Because we received it over a year ago … time is of the essence,” County Manager Romilda Crocamo said at a June 25 county council work session.

WBRE/WYOU, part of Nexstar Media Group, a national company with more than 200 local TV stations, appeared at the work session last week to pitch their $985,500 plan for a yearlong messaging campaign.

The bulk of the request – $892,000 – appears to be the cost of placing targeted ads. Station Vice President and General Manager Andrew Wyatt on Wednesday told WVIA News that the goal is to get the most eyes on the messages on all devices.

Statewide context

Counties must either spend the money – secured through settlements with retail pharmacies and opioid manufacturers and distributors – within 18 months, ask for a six-month extension, or prove to the state’s Opioid Trust that the funds would go toward a multi-year project.

As of last month, the Trust approved $50.9 million for 350 county-submitted projects across Pennsylvania. Luzerne County has received $4.3 million out of $25 million expected over 18 years.

WBRE plan details

WBRE/WYOU and PA Homepage Account Executive Megan Mance called the opioid epidemic “one of the worst things to happen to our area, to this county.”

The company studied opioid remediation plans and devised a media campaign that would align with the state’s suggested spending, known as Exhibit E, she said.

Top spending categories in the proposal include $356,000 for WBRE/WYOU-TV commercials; $216,000 for streaming TV or digital over-the-top (OTT) ads; $160,000 for “high profile sports programming;” $96,000 for social media; $40,000 for digital targeting or “geofencing” for schools; and $24,000 in “preroll” advertising on pahomepage.com, the station’s website.

The remainder would go toward messaging. The campaign proposes $22,500 for a student public service announcement competition; $20,000 for four drug disposal events; $15,000 for opioid primetime specials; $8,000 for production costs; $6,000 for a “Heroes on the Front Line” series; $4,000 for the Paola’s Parenting Playbook series; and $18,000 for opioid awareness sponsorships.

WBRE/WYOU, which has existing contracts with Luzerne County Human Services, presented the idea to some commission members prior to their county council presentation June 25, including county Drug and Alcohol Director Ryan Hogan.

In attendance were Wyatt, Mance, Sales Manager Brian Jenkins, and Director of Sales Stephanie Cielski, according to Hogan.

“That was with our county leadership,” Hogan said. “And from there, we thought it'd be advantageous for everybody to have them present to council.”

Last year, Monroe, Carbon and Pike Counties spent a combined $500,000 on a messaging campaign, focused on billboards and social media, with Kudu Creative based in Easton.

Monroe County Commissioner John D. Christy said Wednesday the campaign was admittedly “low-hanging fruit,” but the project got the tri-county drug and alcohol campaign off the ground in December.

Christy said other projects funded with county opioid settlement dollars include the state’s Law Enforcement Treatment Initiative (LETI); a detective and addiction counselor team that investigates overdose reversals – “over 40% success rate of getting people into treatment”; medication-assisted treatment at the county prison; and an allotment for the county drug and alcohol department.

It’s unclear when Luzerne County Council would vote to fund the WBRE/WYOU campaign. Councilmembers expressed their support after the presentation, and Crocamo called the nearly $1 million proposal “an exciting project.”

Monroe County Commissioner John D. Christy said Wednesday the campaign was admittedly “low-hanging fruit,” but the project got the tri-county drug and alcohol campaign off the ground in December.

Luzerne spending decisions

Luzerne County’s opioid settlement spending commission has met three times, but not publicly, Hogan said. A program at the county jail was funded before meetings took place.

The commission, formed in May, is composed of Hogan; Lynn Hill, head of Human Services; District Attorney Sam Sanguedolce; Jim Wilbur, county prison warden and corrections head; Mary Butera, a citizen appointee; John Lombardo, chair of county council; and Romilda Crocamo, county manager.

Sanguedolce said though meetings are private, county council will make all decisions on opioid spending in public meetings.

“The public will have an opportunity to comment at the Council meetings when Council will consider them for a vote,” Sanguedolce said in a statement, shared by Hogan.

Council Chairman John Lombardo confirmed a portion of opioid settlement money went toward addiction treatment at Luzerne County Correctional Facility. At last week’s meeting, Lombardo said such meds for inmates were “way overdue.”

County documents show $450,000 went to Wellpath, a private third-party provider, via the county for medication-assisted treatment at the county prison. LCCF offers buprenorphine (Suboxone and Sublocade) and naltrexone (Vivitrol), according to Hogan.

Advocates have urged the county prison to include methadone, which some formerly incarcerated people say is not offered in Luzerne County. Methadone clinics have strict oversight, meaning there could be barriers for the prison population to receive the medication.

“Methadone is offered at LCCF when it is determined that is the best treatment option per the medical team for Medically Assisted Treatment of an inmate,” said County Corrections head Jim Wilbur in an emailed statement. “Wellpath contracts with Comprehensive Treatment Center of Wilkes-Barre to provide Methadone.”

Wilbur did not respond to repeated requests when asked if only specific segments of the prison population are eligible for methadone, like pregnant people. In 2022, 16% of county prisons in Pennsylvania offered certain medications to pregnant inmates only, per a report by Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project at the time.

Future community funding for Luzerne, Lackawanna

Grant applications for Luzerne County providers, vendors or other treatment plans could be coming later this month.

“Wholeheartedly, we plan to move forward with that,” Hogan said. The commission is working with the county solicitor’s office “to not only develop bylaws, but also to develop some kind of application process to kind of streamline that process.”

Lackawanna County asked for grant applications between March 28 and April 29. Now two months into consideration, potential recipients still haven’t been named.

“We just haven’t met to make a final decision yet,” said Barbara Durkin, Lackawanna/Susquehanna Drug and Alcohol director and Lackawanna interim Human Services director.

And the Lackawanna Opioid Settlement Fund Committee isn’t likely to award grants ahead of their next meeting on July 9. Coordinating with nine members, including the chief solicitor, district attorney, chief financial officer, a Court of Common Pleas judge, lead public defender and three county commissioners has proven difficult.

“I had hoped we would but schedules have been tough,” Durkin said in an email.

Still unspent

Separate from county payouts, Pennsylvania also distributed opioid settlement dollars to municipalities that signed on to lawsuits, many in Luzerne County. Most cities, townships and boroughs have received $10,000 to $20,000 to-date.

A spokesperson for the state Opioid Trust said municipalities, unlike counties, “were not required to file reports to the Trust by March 15, 2024, though they were encouraged to do so and likely will in the future be required to do so. Further guidance on extensions of time will be addressed by the Board of Trustees at upcoming meetings.”

Spending data compiled by the state Opioid Trust shows 14 municipalities have not spent their portion of opioid settlement funds. They money is separate from county payouts from pharmaceutical manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies.
Tom Riese / WVIA News
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State Opioid Trust: "Report of Opioid Trust Payments 1 and 2 and Spent and Committed Funds as of April 26, 2024"
Spending data compiled by the state Opioid Trust shows 14 municipalities have not spent their portion of opioid settlement funds. They money is separate from county payouts from pharmaceutical manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies.

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

You can email Tom at tomriese@wvia.org
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