Lycoming County to get $4.5 million over 18 years from opioid settlement

Lycoming County is set to receive almost $4.5 million from the $26 billion opioid settlement with drug distributors McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen and manufacturer Johnson and Johnson — which is good news. The reason the county is receiving that amount is not such good news.

“So, on the one hand it’s good news. On the other hand, it’s kind of sad news that we have such a high series of overdose deaths and other problems in our county,” said County Commissioner Rick Mirabito.

In January, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro had announced that all 67 counties in the state, including 241 local governments with a population of 10,000 or more, had signed on to the lawsuit. Lycoming County also joined the litigation earlier this year.

The lawsuit alleged that opioid manufacturers caused the opioid crisis through deceptive marketing practices which misrepresented the risk for addiction, focusing on the benefits without disclosing the risks. In settling the lawsuit, some companies have admitted no wrong.

The monies from the settlement will be distributed over a period of 18 years and can only be used for specific purposes related to the opioid crisis.

In a virtual press conference recently, Shapiro stated, “The Office of Attorney General is using every tool available to help communities across Pennsylvania with relief from the opioid crisis, which sadly kills 14 Pennsylvanians each and every day. That includes holding drug companies that fueled this crisis, that manufactured this crisis, accountable.”

There’s a formula used to determine where the money goes. Counties will receive 70% of the money based on a combined metric of overdose deaths, opioid use disorder hospitalizations, Naloxone administration and a percent of opioid shipments. Then 15% is going to litigate in counties and other municipalities such as subdivisions, and then 15% is going to be appropriated by the legislature based on suggestions from the Department of Drug and Alcohol, according to Shapiro.

In 2021, Pennsylvania had 4,300 overdose deaths.

“These settlements require that these companies pay $26 billion and also change the way they do business in this country,” Shapiro said.

“We brought together stakeholders, county and state officials, people from the treatment and recovery community to work together in order to figure out how we’re going to drive this money out into our communities and ensure that it has the greatest impact in the very short term,” Shapiro said.

Jen Smith, secretary for the department of drug and alcohol programs in the state offered a

snapshot of the eligible uses of funds supported by her department including: expanding and supporting the use of Naloxone and medication assisted treatment; establishing substance use disorder crisis services; employing harm reduction strategies where possible; expanding warm handoff programs; increasing the availability of treatment and screenings for pregnant and postpartum women and babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome; bolstering community recovery supports for individuals with substance use disorder and their families; creating or expanding drug courts and law enforcement diversion programs such as the Law Enforcement Treatment Initiative programs; and support first responders and those on the front lines of the epidemic.

Smith noted that the funds help address the short term needs and plan for the long-term needs across the state.

“There are differences as to when all of these dollars will flow. But those differences present us with an opportunity to truly invest in filling gaps in a really thoughtful way and having the ability to create sustainable programs and bolster existing programs,” Smith said.

“We must have continued urgency to address this crisis at the community level. That’s where the pressing needs lie and where the real change begins. This funding will provide opportunities to reach underserved individuals struggling with substance use disorder and provide the necessary tools to help them find treatment and recovery,” she added.

Shapiro outlined what needs to happen next.

A consent agreement will be filed in Commonwealth Court. The court then signs off on the agreement. The next step is to create what’s known as an independent Trust which will have appointments from the General Assembly, the governor’s office, county appointments. The trust is the legal entity that will be overseeing the distribution of the money out to the counties and the local government. Locally, Shea Madden, executive director of the West Branch Drug and Alcohol Abuse Commission, has been selected to be on the Trustee Board.

The next step is getting the funding out to the counties so that they can start using it this year, he stated.Two payments are going out this year-one in late spring and one in the fall.

The announcement by Mirabito of the settlement at the commissioners’ meeting sparked a discussion amongst the commissioners about how the money could best be utilized in the county.

“If you recall, I was not in favor of accepting this. I believe when you look at the money we spend in recovery and education and whatnot, it’s not working. It’s just not working. No matter what we do and you can go back into our high school years, I mean you had drug abuse all the time. It’s just now, fentanyl came onto the market and it’s really destroying families,” said Commissioner Tony Mussare.

“And you know when we talk about the education component within that settlement and not being able to recover it in the money that our taxpayers have been paying for our courts, for our prisons, it made no sense. Doesn’t make any sense that we’re going to continue down a path that is not showing any signs of improvement. We need to do something differently. What it is, I don’t know…but it’s not good,” Mussare said.

For Shea Madden, executive director of the West Branch Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission, which serves as the Single County Authority, education is an important tool, but it has to be delivered in the most proficient way.

“I guess I would say that depends on the type and the frequency of the education,” she said.

“What I have learned over the last 25 years here is that kind of those vague, one-time, flash-in-the-pan for lack of a better word-those one-time prevention things-he’s probably correct. Where we can make a difference is when we’re doing an evidence-based program in the school. Doing it repeatedly,” Madden said.

The program that the Commission utilizes is “Too Good for Drugs.” It’s an evidence-based program with curriculum every year K-12.

Madden feels that optimally kids should get the program which consists of 10 45-minute lessons, every year, but that is probably not likely.

“Getting it multiple times…over the course of a couple different years, can make an impact. I know everybody likes those big, kind of one-time things where you bring in a speaker, but they don’t have the lasting effect, so I do think he’s right,” Madden said, referring to Mussare’s comments.

“It’s more about the type and frequency of the education happening,” she added.

In conjunction with the education component for children, Madden said that she would like to see more offered for families in terms of support and education, such as the Be a Loving Mirror program for families struggling with a family member in substance use disorder.

The commission has offered the program in Clinton County, but Madden said that she would like to expand that to both counties that the commission serves.

“The more education you can get to families-it’s not just educating people on drugs, it’s educating them how to love a family member affected by substance use disorder,” Madden said.

“Let’s face it. Anyone of us at any time can have that in our lives,” she added.

Mirabito referenced a photo that he had seen recently showing how the street value of drugs has increased from the “high school years” that Mussare mentioned.

“So, part of the problem with the drug issue is both the supply side and the demand side, right? I mean obviously we want to keep drugs from coming into the country, but on the demand side, as long as there’s a demand for it, it’s going to drive up the price,” Mirabito said.

“I think the hard part is because you and I have talked about this alot and all three of us have run into people who just seemed to be repetitively not getting things together,” Mirabito stated..

“What we have to do is look for the silver ring in the people who do make it. There are lots of people in our community who have recovered who are important leaders in organizations in our community. The truth be told, but for the grace of God (that) could be any of us,” Mirabito added.

Commissioner Scott Metzger feels that cutting off the source of the drugs is essential.

“People say that what goes on at the border doesn’t affect us-yes it does. There’s so much drugs coming across that border right now,” Metzger said. “The fentanyl explosion is going to happen in the country in the next few years. It is going to be like no other explosion.”

“Title 42 is about ready to be taken away and you’re going to have four times the amount of people coming across the border. The cartels are using those people to run drugs into our country and it comes all the way up into Williamsport, Lycoming County and it goes throughout the country. We’re already seeing fentanyl coming across the borders,” he continued.

Title 42 was enacted by the previous administration and allowed the US to quickly expel migrants to their country of origin or Mexican border towns and denied them a chance at asylum. The current administration is seeking to end the policy.

“Secure the border. Until that border gets fixed we’re going to continue seeing these drugs come across, all across the country. It comes into this county also. It finds these victims. It finds these people that end up using it for whatever reason. It’s taking victims. It’s taking victims because we’re not addressing the problem. And the problem is at the border-the gang members, the people that are supplying the drugs to our communities and until we do so, it’s going to get worse,” he stated.

So, where would the West Branch Drug and Alcohol Abuse Commission as the single county authority like to see the money utilized?

“We went through each point of it (eligible uses) to see what we’re already doing. The majority of those we’re already doing, maybe not as fully as we’d like to or as in depth. That was the first thing that I did was to ask the staff for input on each one of them, so we could see where we’re at,” Madden said.

“I don’t necessarily think we have gaps. I think we have areas that we’d like to make a little bit more robust. One of the things that we’re working on with the county now is a medication assisted treatment program in the jail. We’re getting very close to that, thankfully,” she said.

“I also think we’d like to take a look at getting more prevention programming in the schools,” she added.

The important thing, she stressed, is to not duplicate services. Someone may not know that a program already exists so then they go ahead and create it, which Madden said is not using the money where it’s needed.

The Law Enforcement Treatment Initiative which is another program that Madden would like to see the county sign on to. Under the initiative from the state attorney general’s office, people can walk into a police station and ask for help without the fear of being punished.

“We have pieces of it here, but it’s not really official. It’s not necessarily referred to as a program, but we do get law enforcement referrals. It’s just not really structured right now. I think there’s a lot of things we could do there,” she said.


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