© 2024 Connecticut Public

FCC Public Inspection Files:
WPKT · WRLI-FM · WEDW-FM · Public Files Contact
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Many CT towns, cities still deciding how to spend opioid funds

Meriden's Department of Health and Human Services used a portion of the settlement proceeds from several national opioid lawsuits to help retrofit a decommissioned ambulance for Rushford, a behavior health and addiction treatment provider.
Meriden's Department of Health and Human Services used a portion of the settlement proceeds from several national opioid lawsuits to help retrofit a decommissioned ambulance for Rushford, a behavior health and addiction treatment provider.

Connecticut’s towns and cities recently received a combined $9.8 million from several nationwide legal settlements with opioid manufacturers, shippers and retailers, but many of those municipalities are still deciding how to spend that money to combat the ongoing opioid epidemic.

The state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services sent out a survey to Connecticut’s 169 towns and cities last year to gauge how the municipalities are putting that cash to use and to ensure the proceeds from the settlement are being spent on their intended purpose.

The responses to that survey showed a number of municipalities are spending the settlement funds on things like prescription drug take-back events, harm reduction supplies, drug prevention programs for school-age children and by purchasing and distributing naloxone, the overdose-reversing drug.

The biggest takeaway from the survey, however, was that most towns and cities had yet to spend any of the settlement money as of last fall.

Of the $9.8 million the towns and cities received, only $1 million of that money was allocated to help combat the state's deadly opioid epidemic, which claimed the lives of an estimated 1,117 Connecticut residents last year.

At least 98 of the state's towns and cities reported that they hadn't spent any of the funds as of last October.

One of the main reasons that many small towns did not expend the money was because they netted only several thousand dollars through the nationwide legal settlements to this point.

Local officials from those towns explained to the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services that the minimal amount of money they received made it difficult to address opioid addiction in their municipalities.

It's also a symptom of Connecticut's lack of county governments and the network of municipalities that dominate the state.

The town of Bridgewater, one of the smallest towns in Connecticut with roughly 1,700 residents, told the state it placed its $1,137 in opioid settlement money into the town's general fund in order to pay for energy assistance for low-income households.

Curtis Read, Bridgewater's first selectman, told The Connecticut Mirror that he did not know how to spend the settlement proceeds in a way that would make a meaningful difference in opioid addiction.

Read recognized that Bridgewater was not immune to the nationwide opioid epidemic. But in a small town where there isn't professional staff to manage government operations, he said, the settlement funds took a back seat to other priorities, like recent flooding.

"We haven't even talked about it on the selectmen level," Read said. "You can really never cover the whole gamut of responsibility."

Bridgewater is not alone in that regard. Other small towns expressed the same problems in the survey responses, emphasizing that they either didn't have the staff to create new opioid-related programs or didn't receive enough money to do anything with it.

Officials in Scotland, a town of roughly 1,500 in eastern Connecticut, told the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services that it didn't have the necessary staff to administer the settlement funds.

"In the scheme of things, the town gets an amount too small for long-term spending," officials in nearby Voluntown explained.

To overcome the limited amount of money that small towns received, some municipalities in Connecticut created partnerships with their local health districts or pooled their settlement funds with other municipalities in their region.

One example of that type of collaboration can be seen in Connecticut's northwest corner, where 11 rural towns agreed to provide all, or a portion, of their settlement money to the Northwest Hills Council of Governments.

Leonardo Ghio, who is leading that collaboration for the Northwest Hills COG, said the 11 participating towns were able to collectively pool around $40,000 into what has been coined as the Regional Opioid Response Fund.

And the COG has not wasted any time in getting portions of that money out into the communities.

The pooled settlement funds, Ghio said, were used to purchase supplies for "leave behind" kits that are provided to anyone who overdoses and is transported by ambulance to a hospital. The kits are meant to supply those individuals with life-saving medication like naloxone and information on recovery programs.

"We know that about 90% of overdoses in our region are happening in people's homes," Ghio said. "So emergency responders are a key stakeholder in that effort."

The money was also allocated to the Litchfield County Opioid Taskforce, which is a coalition of substance use and behavioral health care providers in the region. That money, Ghio said, is meant to help the organizations purchase harm reduction supplies, like clean syringes and drug testing kits.

"You know, this is what they do," Ghio said. "So instead of reinventing the wheel, we figured that we would support their efforts."

Some of the large and mid-sized cities in Connecticut are also partnering with other organizations when spending their settlement funds.

Meriden announced last year that it planned to spend a portion of its more than $209,000 in settlement funds to help Rushford, a local addiction and mental health care provider, to start up a new mobile unit to perform outreach to people dealing with opioid use disorders.

The city contributed $20,000 to help retrofit a decommissioned ambulance that was donated by Hunter's Ambulance Service and to stock the vehicle with harm reduction supplies that Rushford will pass out to drug users in the city.

Leah Crown, Meriden's director of health and human services, said the new mobile unit will be deployed in areas of the city where data show overdoses are occurring.

The plan for retrofitting the ambulance was able to happen quickly, Crown said, because the city and Rushford were already working together on a program known as the Meriden Opioid Referral for Recovery, which is meant to help first responders in Meriden to connect people with treatment at Rushford.

Some municipalities in Connecticut are taking a little longer, however, to explore their options for the settlement funding and to make sure that they can create sustainable programs that will have a lasting effect in their communities.

Officials in Torrington, for instance, told the state last fall that it was looking to develop a public process for deciding how to spend the more than $131,000 it received from the settlements.

"We have opted to use the city council and a public hearing process to determine how to spend the funds," Elinor Carbone, Torrington's mayor, said.

She said one of the things the city is likely to consider is a request from the Torrington Police Department to use some of the funds to hire a social worker to work with police, which she said would satisfy the requirements of the national settlement agreement.

New Haven is another city that is still trying to establish the rules for how it will spend its settlement funds.

Maritza Bond, the city's director of public health, said her health department is already receiving $2 million per year over the next five years from another federal grant to help combat the opioid epidemic across New Haven County.

As a result, she said, her department did not feel rushed to begin spending the settlement funding as soon as it arrived in the city's bank account. Bond said she wanted to make sure the city had a long-term plan for how to spend its share of those funds and to ensure any programs it finances are sustainable.

"We wanted to make sure we were going to be strategic about the process," Bond said.

None of New Haven's more than $599,000 in settlement funds have been spent to this point. But Bond said her department is nearing the end of a procurement process that will allow local nonprofit service providers to apply for portions of the money.

Organizations that provide opioid treatments, harm reduction supplies and supportive measures to people who are in recovery will be eligible to apply for those grants, which allow them to hire more staff, build necessary infrastructure and expand access to their services.

"I decided not to keep the money in-house, and I decided to take an approach to give it out into the community," Bond said.

The process of finalizing that grant program, Bond said, has taken a significant amount of time to set up, but she said that is the nature of managing government funds.

"Every municipality and town has their own procurement processes, and everyone is going to utilize the funds as they see fit for their community's needs," she said.

Stand up for civility

This news story is funded in large part by Connecticut Public’s Members — listeners, viewers, and readers like you who value fact-based journalism and trustworthy information.

We hope their support inspires you to donate so that we can continue telling stories that inform, educate, and inspire you and your neighbors. As a community-supported public media service, Connecticut Public has relied on donor support for more than 50 years.

Your donation today will allow us to continue this work on your behalf. Give today at any amount and join the 50,000 members who are building a better—and more civil—Connecticut to live, work, and play.