Over the past two years, as state attorneys general agreed to more than $50 billion in legal settlements with companies that made or sold opioids, they vowed the money would be spent on addiction treatment and prevention. They were determined to avoid the misdirection of the 1990s tobacco settlement, in which billions of dollars from cigarette companies went to plug budget gaps instead of funding programs to stop or prevent smoking, NPR reports. In at least one California county, history is repeating itself. Across the country, there are concerns about the lack of transparency regarding how this money will be used. Many local leaders are finding themselves in difficult positions: choosing between paying bills due today or investing in the fight against an ongoing crisis.
Mendocino County in rural Northern California has reported the highest rate of overdose deaths in the state. Yet its board of supervisors decided to use more than $63,000 of opioid settlement funds — about 6.5% of all the settlement cash the county has received in the first two years of distribution— to help fill a general budget shortfall of about $6 million. Specifically, the money has been allotted to cover employee health insurance premiums, wage increases, and cost-of-living adjustments. County officials plan to use that amount as a recurring source of payment, because opioid settlements are scheduled to arrive annually till 2038. The board also used retirement reserves and delayed repair projects and equipment purchases to plug the gap.
"We have to balance our budget by law," said Glenn McGourty, chair of the board of supervisors. "You find money where you can." Vice Chair Mo Mulheren added that health insurance deficits were caused, in part, by the overprescribing of opioids and the costs of addiction treatment for county employees or their family members. Now the settlement dollars can make the county "whole again," she said.