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Rehab centers, drugmakers and more make pitches for portion of $270+ million in opioid settlement funds

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Opioid Settlement Oversight Committee heard 15 presentations Thursday from a number of different entities, all vying for a portion of more than $270 million in opioid settlement money Alabama is set to receive over the next few years.

Alabama has been hit particularly hard by the opioid epidemic, with 4,375 opioid-related overdoses having been reported in 2022, a 76% increase when compared to 2018. Drugmakers have faced increased scrutiny for their role in creating the opioid epidemic, and have paid out tens of billions’ worth of settlements to states all across the country.

Attorney General Steve Marshall negotiated Alabama’s $270 million settlement agreement separately from a group of other states suing drug manufacturers.

As a way to ensure Alabama’s portion of the settlement money was used to effectively combat the opioid epidemic, lawmakers established the Opioid Settlement Committee in June, which held its first meeting in September, hearing from mostly state agencies as to how they would put the money to use.

Save for one presentation from the Alabama Department of Mental Health, which has already been allocated $8.5 million in settlement money, Thursday’s meeting saw the bulk of presentations be given from private entities.

State Opioid Coordinator Debbi Metzger with the Alabama Department of Mental Health gives a presentation to the Opioid Settlement Oversight Committee.

The bulk of presentations were given by rehabilitation organizations, mostly faith-based, including His Way Ministries and New Life for Women. Others were from drugmakers, such as a presentation by representatives for Southern Research that outlined plans to develop non-addictive painkillers as an alternative to opioids. 

Another drugmaker, Emergent Bio Solutions, saw representatives present a proposal for some of the settlement money to be used to manufacture Narcan.

Representatives for Alabama Public Television made a proposal that some of the settlement money be used for a media campaign, making the pitch that the network reaches nearly a million homes each month. Steve Schmidt, CEO of Sunray, made a proposal that some of the settlement money be used for research and development of a new technology to detect opioids using a neutron generator.

Most presentations did not include specific dollar amounts as to how much money they were requesting, outside of one: the Military Officers Association, where Jerry Steele, president of the Alabama chapter of MOA, requested that 25% of all settlement funds be allocated to the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs.

In his presentation, Steele said that the settlement money, if granted, would be used to help expand the VA’s accountability courts, which include veterans courts, mental health courts, and drug courts, which over the last four years have seen 332; 221; and 2,956 graduates, respectively.

One presentation, given by Cullman County Sheriff Matt Gentry, did not include any direct requests for a portion of the settlement money, but rather, was a call for lawmakers to expand mental health resources, something law enforcement has been pleading for in recent years.

The Opioid Settlement Oversight Committee meets for its Nov. 16 meeting.

View below to see the 15 entities that gave presentations:

Following the nearly four hours of presentations, committee members, whose backgrounds range from law enforcement to mental health, had a range of different opinions on how the settlement money should ultimately be used.

“We all come from our own positions from our own experiences, (but) with my work on the Opioid Counsel, we have really tried to emphasize getting resources to people who need treatment, that’s a really big part of what we see as important,” said State Health Officer Scott Harris, speaking with Alabama Daily News. “So we really hope that we can use this opportunity to reach those people who are most in need, those people who are really struggling.”

Other committee members, such Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, told ADN that he would prefer a bulk of the resources going into opioid addiction prevention, rather than treatment.

“We’re losing the war on drugs. If you compare where we are today with where we were ten years ago, we’re in much worse shape, so we can’t keep doing the same thing over and over, we’ve got to prevent. If we can prevent somebody from using drugs now, ten years from now we don’t have to worry about treating them.”

Sen. Robert Stewart, D-Selma, told ADN that he preferred a majority of the settlement money go to ADMH, who he said was already “doing more with less.”

“It’s a department that really has been doing more with less, and when we talk about the cyclical effect that mental health and the addiction crisis have… we can’t just lock people up,” Stewart said.

“We have to be able to provide treatment, and we have an opportunity right now – a prime opportunity – to really make inroads on achieving the great possibilities of having lower addiction rates.”

Another member, Cam Ward, director of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, told ADN that he didn’t have any one particular preference as far as how the settlement money should be allocated, other than that the proposal had to be an “evidence based, data-driven program.”

“The problem in the past is when we had settlement money – the real estate settlement, the tobacco settlement – it almost became a pork pie where everybody stuck their hands in regardless of what you wanted it for, everybody got a free project out of it,” Ward said. 

“I think the way this commission’s doing it is the way it should be done because it’s making sure the money goes to actual treatment of opioid addiction, and not just whatever fun project is out there.”

The committee plans to have settlement money recommendations ahead of the 2024 legislative session, which begins in February.

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