Community should work together to find best ways to spend opioid settlements

BY KATHY MILES

Americans received two pieces of information just a few days apart earlier this summer. The first was the report from the Centers for Disease Control that 2020 brought a staggering rise in deaths by overdose across the U.S.

Kentucky’s Office of Drug Control Policy has now followed that report by issuing Kentucky’s statistics for 2020. Sadly, we saw a 49% increase in 2020, to 1,964 Kentucky lives lost. Boyle County lost 12 of our own to overdoses in 2020.

The other news that came our way was the fact that three major pharmaceutical distribution companies and one maker of pharmaceuticals are settling an enormous lawsuit brought against them by state and local governments across the country, forcing the companies to help pay for the costs of the opioid addiction crisis in the past few years. The reported $26 billion settlement will be the second largest cash settlement in the history of the U.S., but not as large as the settlement of lawsuits against tobacco companies in 1998. In both instances, Americans died and suffered as corporate profits were placed above the ethical principle, “do no harm”.

No amount of settlement dollars will take away the personal pain of losing those 1,964 Kentuckians who died in 2020. We mustn’t let decisions about how to use the settlement funds get in the way of first, acknowledging the impact of the losses, and extending our condolences to all who have lost loved ones. Those now absent family members and friends will never be replaced, and loved ones’ grief and sadness will not disappear just because some hefty funds arrive at the state and local level. 1,964 Kentuckians lost in 2020 is 1,964 too many deaths.

As a community, we have a responsibility to try to learn from these tragedies, and see that they don’t get repeated. Yes, we do believe that the simultaneous occurrence of the COVID-19 pandemic last year contributed to the increased number of deaths, but we also know that alone doesn’t provide the explanation.  Addiction is a complex health problem, with multiple contributing factors.  Some extra assistance is coming to this community, and we should do our very best to use it as wisely as possible to change the trajectory of pain and loss.

Seeing that at least some of the several lawsuits filed were going to be settled, national experts recently have been recommending guidelines for how local and state officials should make decisions about the allocation of funds. Some have issued warnings that mistakes made with some of the tobacco settlement funds can, and should be, avoided. Thankfully, Kentucky is working to be proactive in planning for the best use of the funds.  A major step is State Representative Danny Bentley’s bill setting up a Kentucky Opioid Abatement Advisory Commission tasked with ensuring that the funds be spent on opioid use disorders, and other related substance use and mental health problems.

In a recent research paper, The Rand Corporation has outlined five principles for the use of the funds. They can well serve as guidelines for our local officials as they make decisions. Those principles include: 1) spend money to save lives; 2) use evidence to guide spending; 3) invest in youth and family prevention; 4) focus on racial equity; and 5) develop a fair and transparent process for deciding where to spend the funding.

Local leaders are going to be challenged and tempted to use all of the funds now, and not set aside funding for the future. They may be urged to spend money on programs that are nice but have no research behind them. They may find it hard to recognize the needs of community members too often silenced. And, they may be easily led into allocating funds without setting up a sustainable system of ongoing evaluation.

Being open and transparent in seeking community input and sharing information about decisions made will make a world of difference in addressing all of these potential problems.

Every author who has written about this opioid crisis in America has said that shared local community problem solving is critical for positive change to occur.  Let’s make sure that we remember that as new funding arrives in Boyle County.      Kathy L. Miles, Coordinator,

Boyle County Agency for Substance Abuse Policy, Inc.