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Erie County officials unsure how to spend $1 million to fight opioid epidemic

Erie County legislators typically hear from department heads and leaders of organizations seeking more money for a project or program. But this week, in a twist, the lawmakers talked for an hour about how to spend $1 million to fight the opioid crisis but had no game plan on how to spend the money.

"I'm conflicted about this," said Kevin Hardwick, R-City of Tonawanda.

At a legislative committee meeting Thursday, Mental Health Commissioner Michael Ranney listed possible ways that he and Health Commissioner Gale Burstein could spend the money. Among them:

  • Provide better follow-up drug treatment services to Erie County jail inmates once they are released.
  • Purchase and distribute a more advanced version of the overdose emergency rescue drug Narcan.
  • Pay for higher visibility public service announcements regarding bad batches of fentanyl drugs on the streets.
  • Contribute toward a 24-hour center for emergency access to drug treatment with additional medical care.
  • Create a tuition forgiveness program for those who enter the addiction treatment field, where workforce shortages exist.
  • Add more "crisis stabilization" beds for those who need immediate assistance.

But neither Ranney nor Burstein offered the suggestions as top priorities, nor did they suggest that better ideas aren't out there.

The discussion came amid a sense of urgency. County residents are dying of fatal overdoses at a rate of more than one a day. As of early this week, the Medical Examiner's Office recorded 162 deaths this year from suspected or confirmed overdose deaths.

Some legislators and county administrators favor a more methodical approach in deciding how to spend the money. They suggest casting a wide net and soliciting proposals from treatment providers and others who could bring forward their best ideas in an "expedited" process.

"It's a crisis we all want to work together to try and fix," said Legislature Majority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, who argued against just "throwing money at the problem."

His position was supported by the health commissioner.

But other legislators pointed out that any request for proposals is bound to take weeks, even under an expedited review process. Legislators Patrick Burke and Peter Savage, both Buffalo Democrats, and Hardwick said the county can't afford to take that much time to decide where the money should go.

"I want to know how long is this going to take," Burke said. "It's already been a month since I made this proposal."

Burke sponsored the initial resolution to earmark $1 million in county savings to increase drug treatment access. He originally requested that the money be given the County Health Department to allocate as it sees fit.

"Let's get this allocation into a program that works instead of debating it and losing time," said Savage, who co-sponsored Burke's resolution and expressed concern about "too many cooks in the kitchen."

Some representatives for the Legislature majority have said state municipal law requires a request for proposals be issued before spending such a large sum of money.

Health and Human Services Committee Chairwoman Lynne Dixon, I-Hamburg, said she wants Ranney and Burstein to narrow their list within the next week or so to a few top priorities and their associated price tags. The Legislature would then have the opportunity to review them and decide how to proceed.

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