How Mass. May Use Millions From Opioid Settlements

If the country is fighting a war on opioids, Ohio is staging ones of its bloodiest battles. (Toby Talbot/AP)
A bottle of OxyContin. (Toby Talbot/AP)

An advisory group has started hashing out criteria for how the state will use millions of dollars that has already started flowing from multiple lawsuits stemming from the opioid crisis.

Counseling for children who’ve lost a parent to overdose. Mobile vans distributing clean needles and treatment to rural areas. More job training for former drug users coming out of jail. Recovery programs with black, brown and multilingual staff. Those are a few of the dozens of ways the group suggests Massachusetts might spend the money expected from pending opioid settlements.

There could be a lot of money coming, money communities say they need now to cope with rising overdose deaths, especially among Black drug users.

A settlement with Purdue Pharma, if approved, is expected to deliver $90 million to Massachusetts. Additional money could come from settlement talks which continue in a nationwide case that consolidated lawsuits against other opioid manufacturers and pharmacies. A special trust fund Massachusetts already created has $11.5 million, most of which is from a national settlement with the consulting firm Mckinsey & Company. Purdue Pharma hired McKinsey to help boost sales of Oxycontin.

Massachusetts is among roughly 20 states that have created special funds to make sure settlement dollars are used to address the opioid crisis.

“We’re trying to learn lessons from the tobacco settlement where a lot of those dollars went into the general fund,” said Sara Whaley who tracks state use of opioid funds at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Massachusetts also created a group of recovery program directors, family advocates, physicians and local health leaders who will recommend spending priorities. They drafted a long list during their third meeting Monday.

David Rosenbloom from the Boston University School of Public Health says Massachusetts needs to take advantage of the fact that 69% of people who die after an overdose have had some contact with a state program.

“The striking conclusion is that we know the people who are dying,” Rosenbloom said. “Once we know someone who’s at risk of dying, how do we stay in touch.”

One advisory council member suggested better use of apps. Another talked about a statewide clearing house that might connect people to care and track them over time. A third said it’s clear from COVID that both the message and messenger have to be someone the drug user can relate to and trust.

Council members described a vast range of needs: drug users who need housing, a lack of agreement about effective treatment, family members who don’t know how to respond to an overdose and burnout among front-line workers.

Jennifer Tracey, director of the Boston Mayor’s Office of Recovery Services asked the council to consider using settlement funds to fill gaps. Federal funds, for example, can’t be spent on some harm reduction services such as clean needles to help prevent the spread of infection or on supervised consumption sites.

“What our federal dollars will not pay for is something we have an opportunity to think about,” said Tracey.

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Amid the conversation about goals, priorities and criteria, some in the advisory group urged members to get the money out as quickly as possible.

“We’re ready to roll, just waiting for funding,” said Gina Armstrong with the Pittsfield Health Department. Overdose deaths rose 44% last year in Berkshire County.

The advisory group won’t meet again until the end of September. But Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders says the council will be presented with some possible short term spending options at that meeting. Sudders described her goal as pretty simple.

“We can’t help someone recover if they’re dead. So for me, saving lives creates opportunity,” she said.

Sudders promised Massachusetts will not use settlement funds to replace existing spending on addiction prevention, treatment and recovery. “It will be additive,” she said.


Martha Bebinger Reporter
Martha Bebinger covers health care and other general assignments for WBUR.



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