A special advisory committee tasked with managing millions of dollars in opioid settlement funding made its first recommendation on Tuesday for how to spend that money to combat the ongoing drug epidemic in Connecticut.
After months of planning and debate, the 45-member Opioid Settlement Advisory Committee cast a split vote to allocate $500,000 of the $72.7 million that is currently available through the settlements.
That money will be used to help existing organizations in Connecticut to purchase clean syringes, antibiotic ointments, drug testing kits, overdose reversing drugs like Naloxone and other medical supplies.
Those resources are distributed to active drug users to save people’s lives and to prevent outbreaks of blood-borne diseases, like viral hepatitis and HIV, which can be spread through the sharing of dirty needles.
Nancy Navaretta, the Commissioner of the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, argued on Tuesday that the opioid settlement advisory committee, which she chairs, needed to “get some money out the door.”
This week’s meeting marked the fifth time that the full advisory committee has met since it was formed in March, but it was the first time that the members of the committee actually voted on distributing any of the money that was under their control.
All together, the advisory committee is expecting to receive around $600 million over the next decade or two from legal settlements with companies that manufactured, distributed and sold the prescription pain pills that fed the opioid epidemic in past decades.
As of this week, the advisory committee had roughly $72.7 million available in a special account that was set up to ensure the settlement money wasn’t mixed up with other state funds.
The Connecticut legislature voted to create the Opioid Settlement Advisory Committee in 2022 largely to make sure the settlement money went toward its intended purpose of curbing overdose deaths tied to heroin, fentanyl and prescription painkillers and reducing the number of people with opioid use disorders.
As a result, the advisory committee spent a large part of the last nine months collecting data about the current state of Connecticut’s opioid epidemic, which has already killed more than 800 people this year.
The committee also set up a website where people can recommend how to use the settlement funds, and it formalized a lengthy nine-step process for how it will approve eventual expenditures.
Several members of the advisory committee, which is made up of state and local officials, public health experts, treatment providers and people who have lost family members and friends to the epidemic, argued Tuesday that the $500,000 for harm reduction supplies was needed in order to address an immediate need in Connecticut.
“It’s kind of a general topic, but there are already organizations in the state that are doing this work that could use these supplies,” said John Lally, a committee member who lost one his sons to an opioid overdose in 2016.
“We know these are things that can save lives right away,” Lally added.
Officials from the Connecticut Department of Public Health explained that their agency already allocates roughly $600,000 per year to help service providers in the state purchase clean syringes and other harm reduction supplies.
But the agency officials explained that money is not keeping up with the skyrocketing need.
To emphasize that point, the DPH staff presented a graphic that showed how the number of people served by the syringe exchange program in Connecticut has grown from roughly 2,000 people in 2013 to more than 8,000 people last year.
Meanwhile, the state funding for those supplies has remained largely the same.
Mark Jenkins, the founder and CEO of the Connecticut Harm Reduction Alliance, is one of the primary recipients of that funding for harm reduction supplies. His organization serves more than half of the 8,000 people currently participating in the syringe program statewide.
Jenkins acknowledged the additional $500,000 the advisory committee approved for the purchase of syringes and other supplies on Tuesday, but he argued that was a sliver of what is currently needed in the state.
Jenkins said his organization has received roughly 120,000 syringes from the state this year, but he said that is only a fraction of the 904,000 syringes he and his team have distributed at 29 different sites throughout the state.
The cost of all of the additional syringes and harm reduction supplies, Jenkins said, has come out of his organization's budget.
"Here's the deal. A half a million is a drop in the bucket," Jenkins said. "We are looking to expand all these services."
"DPH can't keep up with the demand," he added.
Jenkins said the supplies his team distributes are helping to ensure that there aren't more outbreaks of serious communicable diseases like HIV and hepatitis in Connecticut.
"We are trying to avert a public health nightmare," Jenkins said.
The members of the advisory committee initially considered spending $1 million over two years for the harm reduction supplies, but they chose not to recommend the extra $500,000 after a short debate.
Rep. Toni Walker, a New Haven Democrat who is on the committee, said she wanted to see how the initial $500,000 was used, but she said the committee might consider an additional expenditure for syringes and harm reduction supplies in the spring of 2024.
The rest of the committee eventually went along with that suggestion to wait on allocating any other money.
The committee still has an online portal available where it is soliciting recommendations on how to spend the hundreds of millions of dollars in settlement money.
But as of Tuesday, they said only 20 individuals and organizations have submitted recommendations through that website.