GT County Eyes Options for $4.5 Million in Opioid Funds
By Beth Milligan | May 11, 2023
Grand Traverse County commissioners will consider using a committee comprised of county staff and local representatives from the healthcare, recovery, law enforcement, and drug treatment communities to determine how best to spend $4.5 million in opioid lawsuit settlement funds coming to Grand Traverse County.
Deputy County Administrator Chris Forsyth reviewed options with county commissioners at a study session Wednesday for distributing the county’s portion of funding meant to address the fallout from the opioid crisis. Grand Traverse County was among approximately 3,000 counties, cities, and other local units of government that sued the manufacturers, distributors, and pharmacies behind the crisis. Traverse City-based law firm Smith & Johnson Attorneys, P.C. played an integral role in the case, with communities eventually winning an estimated $26 billion payout over the coming years. Approximately $800 million is coming to Michigan, with funding distributed to local communities. Grand Traverse County has already received just over $573,000 of its estimated $4.5 million settlement.
Forsyth shared local statistics with commissioners to put the opioid crisis’ impact into perspective. In 2022, Grand Traverse County reported 264 suspected overdoses, 23 of which were fatal – more than any other surrounding county. Naloxone – which can treat narcotic overdoses – was reportedly only used in 29 percent of county overdoses. Munson Healthcare reports that "39.6 percent of patients treated in the emergency department for substance use disorder will return to the ED within 90 days." Statewide, 3,096 people died of an overdose in Michigan in 2021 – almost triple the number of traffic fatalities.
Forsyth, who previously worked in the prosecutor's office, called the topic of opioid addiction “very difficult” and “dark.” Forsyth said he’s worked professionally with individuals experiencing addiction and also personally has family members who struggle with addiction. He admitted he was initially “skeptical” of the federal opioid lawsuits, harboring doubts over whether communities could prevail in court and whether they would recover any damages. “It’s turned out to be pretty successful, way more than I initially thought,” he said. He likened the settlement funds to the coming of dawn after a dark night. “We are at that point, the sun is rising,” he said. “We have the opportunity to do a lot of good here.”
Settlement funds can only be spent on an approved list of programs and uses, including things like Naloxone, opioid-related treatment, prevention, education, syringe service programs, care for incarcerated populations and pregnant/postpartum women, data collection and research, and recovery support. At least 75 percent of funds must go toward those areas, though up to 25 percent can be spent on things like administration or reimbursement for prior expenses, Forsyth said. Settlement funds must go into their own restricted fund and are not blended in with the county’s general fund, he added.
Forsyth said that the “needs are many” in the community for addressing the drug crisis, with gaps found “throughout the whole system.” That ranges from not enough treatment beds to a lack of recovery coaches to a shortage in supportive housing, he said. Settlement funds could also help support a proposed new local mental health center, or bolster the local drug court program or address opioid addiction in the jail. Forsyth said creating a committee with both internal and external stakeholders – similar to one that was formed to prioritize spending the county’s $18.1 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding – could help evaluate and rank needs to determine how to best distribute dollars.
Numerous representatives from the law enforcement, healthcare, and drug treatment communities spoke during public comment Wednesday, advocating for a collaborative approach on using funds. Grand Traverse Undersheriff Mike suggested using a questionnaire so that county departments like the sheriff’s office, health department, and court system could share their needs with commissioners. “We all need to have some input,” he said. Judge Charles Hamlyn of Thirteenth Circuit Court noted that $4.5 million won’t solve the region’s drug problem, but could help groups working to address it. “We need to link everybody together, and that has to be the focus,” he said.
Addiction Treatment Services CEO Paula Lipinski pointed out that community groups are already used to partnering together, “because we’ve had to...we’ve been fighting this underfunded for years, and we’re just trying to get ahead of it with our partners.” She encouraged commissioners to include representatives on the committee who have firsthand experience with recovery and/or work within the recovery community. She also asked commissioners to keep the families who’ve been impacted by addiction – “people who are often forgotten” – in the front of their minds as they determine how to spend funds. That remark was echoed by several others in public comment, some of whom shared emotional personal stories of family members impacted by addiction. “This is an everyone problem,” summarized Goodwill Northern Michigan Community Engagement Officer Ryan Hannon.
Forsyth said there were opportunities for Grand Traverse County to stretch its impact beyond the $4.5 million settlement, such as leveraging dollars to secure additional state grants or teaming up with neighboring communities to pool opioid funds for projects. Commissioners are expected to discuss the settlement again and potentially take action on forming a committee at an upcoming meeting.Comment