JONESBOROUGH, Tennessee (WJHL) – The region will make more for its opioid settlement money if northeast Tennessee counties work together on using the funds, public health experts told Washington County commissioners on Monday.
Rob Pack, professor of public health at East Tennessee State University (ETSU), pitched a concerted approach at a special district commission workshop on 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 managing the crisis with an evidence-based approach.
Area governments are beginning to plan how best to spend the more than $ 20 million they will receive from the Baby Doe opioid settlement.
More than a month ago, the Stacy Street First District Criminal Justice judge suggested that local government leaders consider funding an inpatient treatment center in the former Northeast Correctional Center labor camp in Roan Mountain.
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Street was in attendance on Monday, as were her fellow judge Lisa Nidiffer and State Representatives Rebecca Alexander (R-Jonesborough) and Tim Hicks (R-Gray).
Pack said he was coming not with a proposal but with a framework for how the county can best spend the funds. District Attorney Allyson Wilkinson said the commissioners will be free and free of possible “recoveries” from any bankruptcy related to the case on November 3rd.
“I have no profit from what I say tonight,” Pack told the commissioners. “I’m not looking for resources here, I’m not making a suggestion for anything.”
Instead, Pack reviewed facts about the impact of the opioid crisis at the regional and national levels.
He urged commissioners to consider a public health approach to using the funds and gave a full overview of how public health experts see the best way to help people recover from drug addiction and stay successful in recovery.
Pack said drug overdose deaths in Tennessee increased more than 40% in 2020 from 2019. However, he said that up to 66% of people suffering from substance abuse recover and call recovery “not just possible, but likely”.
A key to ensuring that success reaches the most people is remembering that recovery is likely and a willingness to use “harm reduction” methods, including considering needle exchange programs, Pack said.
Another, he said, is “maximizing the impact of settlement resources by coordinating recovery services.”
Finally, he pointed to successful models, including in Kentucky, that include opportunities for self-preservation efforts in order to be self-sustaining.
“We need to think about getting out of this eternal scholarship cycle,” said Pack.
Wilkinson said the vast majority of settlement funds have almost no restrictions.
Commissioner Freddie Malone noted that the opioid crisis has caused Washington County to bear more costs – in everything from law enforcement to public health to education – than it receives in funding.
Jim Wheeler agreed, saying the severance payment was “a very small amount that we get back for things that were actually expenses. This is not a grant … this is money that we spent and was recovered for the community … and whatever it is for is a local decision. “
Once November 3 arrives, the Washington County amount cannot be “reclaimed from bankruptcy,” and the county can begin allocating it at its own discretion.
Commission chairman Greg Matherly recommended that the procedure for examining specific proposals be left in the HEW committee.