Overdose deaths have risen sharply each year since the Covid-19 pandemic struck, with opioid-related deaths in Erie County last year rivaling the all-time one-year high for overdoses set in 2016. While the opioid drug crisis runs a distant second to the Covid-19 pandemic, it is once again a rapidly rising public health concern after years of pre-pandemic declines.
But the state and region will soon be receiving millions of dollars that will be earmarked toward addiction prevention and treatment as a result of a pharmaceutical lawsuit settlement, Attorney General Letitia James said Tuesday during a video news conference with Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown.
James had reached settlements last year with major pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors of opioid painkillers, which had been marketed as safe even though they were later found to be addictive. Of up to $1.5 billion in settlement money coming to New York, James said Tuesday that Erie County will receive its first installment of $8.3 million this year. Buffalo will receive $582,000.
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"This is just the first payment," Poloncarz said of the $1.3 million the county is expected to receive this month. "There will be many more to come for years now."
As reported in January, Niagara County is receiving $683,000 from the state's settlement Allergan made last month. Previously, Niagara County received about $11 million from settlements with four other pharmaceutical companies.
Overall, Western New York counties will receive $12.8 million this year in lawsuit settlement funds, James said. The region will receive up to $75 million, in total, over time as part of these settlements.
Niagara County will pocket $683,000 from a state settlement with Allergan, one of several drug manufacturers the state sued over the costs of the opioid overdose epidemic.
How that money will be spent is another question.
After the Covid-19 pandemic struck in 2020, overdose deaths surged. Social isolation and limited access to drug treatment and Narcan were blamed for contributing to the increase in deaths, with more people not getting support or help from family and friends, using drugs alone and dying before help could arrive.
But many in the public health community expressed hope that once vaccines became widely available and imposed community shutdowns were lifted, as they were in 2021, the overdose surge would fall.
That has not happened.
Instead, Erie County has reported 286 deaths for last year – all but two of which are confirmed deaths due to opioid-related drug use. That falls just 15 cases shy of the all-time high for opioid drug overdoses countywide, set more than five years ago.
Anne Constantino, president and CEO of Horizon Health Services, said that the ability for drug users to remain socially isolated and engage in high-risk behaviors remains high. The opportunity to use opioid drugs alone, particularly drugs containing fentanyl, or mix drugs with alcohol, remains a deadly combination, she said.
At the same time, the number of people coming for addiction treatment services at Horizon remains low compared with pre-Covid years.
"We talk about isolation being the enemy of addiction. It’s also the enemy of mental health," she said. "This is long-term pipeline stuff. Once you’ve created a misuse habit or addiction, that’s not going to be easily resolved."
Constantino is one of the people from Western New York tapped to serve on the state's Opioid Settlement Board, to advise the state how these settlement dollars should be spent. That board has not yet convened, she said.
"I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to weigh in," she said, adding that the money should be directed toward core, evidence-based services that can help many, instead of pet projects that serve only a few.
She also said she looks forward to seeing an open and transparent process for how that money winds up getting distributed.
Poloncarz and Mayor Brown said Tuesday they have not yet decided how the lawsuit settlement money will be allocated. The county's Opioid Task Force will work on a plan for distributing the county's portion, Poloncarz said.
"We want to ensure that we get the best bang for the buck," he said.