COLUMBUS, Ohio — The tattoos on Billie Stafford’s hands — inspired by street art and full of references to her work helping prevent drug-related deaths — have become an indelible memorial to the friend who inked them and the opioid crisis that killed him in April.
As a panel starts considering how to distribute Ohio’s share of multimillion-dollar legal settlements with drugmakers and distributors over the toll of opioids, Stafford is concerned that most of the members don’t bring that same burden of personal loss to their spending recommendations.
“They don’t have to come and write 20 names on a (memorial) wall because everyone’s dying,” said Stafford, whose friend David Seymour died of an overdose and who co-founded a group that supports people addicted to opioids and their loved ones.
Across the U.S., people in recovery and families of those who died from overdoses fear they won’t be heard on the state-level panels recommending or deciding on the use of big pieces of proposed and finalized settlements, which are worth more than $40 billion, according to an Associated Press tally.
The money is seen as crucial to stemming a crisis that deepened amid the coronavirus pandemic, with opioids involved in most of the record 107,000 overdose-related deaths in the U.S. last year.
“If we approach this in a very educated process, we have a real opportunity to move the needle for patients and families for generations to come,” said Dr. Adam Scioli, the medical director at Caron Treatment Centers, which operates in several East Coast areas.
After money from 1990s tobacco settlements went to laying fiber-optic cable, repairing roads and other initiatives that had little to do with public health, the opioid deals were crafted to direct most funds toward combatting the drug crisis.
The settlements list strategies the money can fund, including paying for the overdose reversal drug naloxone; educating children about dangers of opioids; expanding screening and interventions for pregnant women; and helping people get into treatment. State and local governments have leeway, though.
For the people on a mission to stem drug deaths, the details matter. Advocates want to see the money used to make it easier to get treatment, to provide related housing, transportation and other services, and to provide materials to test drug supplies for fentanyl, the synthetic opioid involved in most recent fatal overdoses.