Public health experts push for regional collaboration with opioid settlement money


JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. (WJHL) – The region will get more bang for its opioid settlement buck if Northeast Tennessee counties collaborate in their use of the funds, public health experts told Washington County commissioners Monday.

East Tennessee State University (ETSU) public health professor Rob Pack made a pitch for an aligned approach at a special county commission workshop related to the settlement funds. Pack has been a regional leader in drug abuse recovery efforts for the past decade and serves on several prominent regional and national groups dedicated to addressing the crisis with an evidence-based approach.

Area governments are beginning to plan how best to spend more than $20 million that’s coming to them from the Baby Doe opioid settlement.

More than a month ago, First District Criminal Court Judge Stacy Street proposed that local government leaders consider funding a residential treatment center at the former Northeast Correctional Center work camp in Roan Mountain.

Street was present Monday, as were fellow judge Lisa Nidiffer and state representatives Rebecca Alexander (R-Jonesborough) and Tim Hicks (R-Gray).

Pack said he wasn’t coming with a proposal, but rather a framework for how the county can best approach spending the funds. County Attorney Allyson Wilkinson told commissioners will be free and clear Nov. 3 of any potential “clawbacks” from a bankruptcy associated with the case.

“I don’t stand to gain from what I’m saying tonight,” Pack told commissioners. “I’m not looking for resources here, I’m not making a proposal for something.”

Instead, Pack reviewed facts about the opioid crisis’s impact regionally and nationally.

He urged commissioners to consider a public health approach to using the funds and gave a broad overview of how public health experts see the best path to helping people recover from drug addiction and successfully remain in recovery.

Pack said drug overdose deaths in Tennessee increased by more than 40% in 2020 from 2019. But he said up to 66% of people who suffer from substance abuse disorders recover, calling recovery “not just possible, but probable.”

One key to helping that success reach the most people are remembering that recovery is probable and being willing to use “harm reduction” methods, even including considering needle exchange programs, Pack said.

Another, he said, is “maximizing the impact of settlement resources by aligning recovery services.”

Finally, he pointed to successful models, including in Kentucky, that include opportunities for recovery efforts to become self-sustaining.

“We’ve got to think about getting off that perpetual grant cycle,” Pack said.

Wilkinson said the vast majority of the settlement money has almost no restrictions.

Commissioner Freddie Malone noted the opioid crisis has caused Washington County to bear more cost — in everything from law enforcement to public health to education — than it will receive in funding.

Jim Wheeler agreed, saying the settlement is “a very small amount to come back to us for things that were actual expenditures. This is not some grant…this is money that we’ve spent out that has been recovered for the community…and whatever it’s for is a local decision.”

Once Nov. 3 arrives, the amount slated for Washington County can’t be “clawed back from bankruptcy” and the county can begin allocating it as it sees fit.

Commission Chairman Greg Matherly recommended the process for considering actual proposals stay with the HEW committee.

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