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Ohio Counties Take Divergent Paths In Spending Opioid Money

Cities and counties spent years battling the pharmaceutical industry over the opioid crisis. Now that billions of dollars in settlement funds are beginning to flow, the experiences of two Ohio counties highlight a challenge: how to spend the money.

Many state and local governments are starting to receive funds from settlements expected to total $50 billion over the next two decades. Cleveland-based Cuyahoga County and neighboring Summit County, where Akron is located, got a head start, the Wall Street Journal reports.

They were part of a test case resolved in 2019, in a settlement valued at about $320 million with opioid distributors and manufacturers, including McKesson Corp., AmerisourceBergen Corp., Cardinal Health Inc., Johnson & Johnson and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd.

The counties alleged drugmakers and distributors played down the risk of painkillers to fuel the opioid crisis. Cuyahoga and Summit have pursued divergent paths since they received their settlement funds, previewing the kinds of choices other municipalities must make.

“When you initially receive these dollars, you put together a strategy, but it’s shocking how many requests you might get,” said Brandy Carney, Cuyahoga County’s public safety and justice chief. “That amount of money might seem large, and then it quickly goes out the doors.”

Cuyahoga, with 1.3 million residents, saw a 222 percent% increase in drug overdose deaths from 2007 to 2017, the year the county filed suit. It was averaging close to two deaths a day.

Officials have moved quickly to spend $125 million, with more than half already designated for a new treatment center meant to divert people with drug addiction and mental illness away from the county jail. The treatment facility has typically been close to half full in recent months, its highest numbers since the center opened in May 2021.

Summit County, home to 540,000 residents, has taken a slower approach than its neighbor, spending just over $7 million so far of the $104 million it has available.

“We have money, and that’s new to us,” said Greta Johnson, chief of staff for Summit County’s executive office. “It’s a full-time job to spend money of this size. We don’t want to dump it all in one place and are avoiding the temptation of letting it burn a hole in our pocket.”

Summit County has given more than 30 grants, some as small as $10,000, to local nonprofits that provide education or housing to the community, as well as larger awards, including $2 million to local hospitals to support pregnant women with opioid addiction.

The county also is funding a program to allow residents to receive clean syringes, blood tests and access to medication at emergency rooms, and it has a system to distribute test strips for detecting fentanyl in other drugs, available through mail order and offered at community events.


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