This is one in an ongoing New Bedford Light series examining the far-reaching impacts of addiction.
NEW BEDFORD — If you had a million dollars to spend on the opioid crisis, what would you do with it?
For New Bedford, that’s not a hypothetical question. The city has received $1.2 million from a legal settlement with Johnson & Johnson and opioid distributors. More payments will bring an additional $3.7 million by 2038.
The money comes from a national lawsuit over the pharmaceutical companies’ role in exacerbating the opioid crisis. Massachusetts and most other states signed on as plaintiffs, and now local governments across the country are receiving their share of the $26 billion agreement in regular payments that started last summer. The money from these settlements is meant to mitigate the damage the crisis has caused — the city can spend it on programs to prevent, treat, and reduce the harms of addiction.
New Bedford has been hit hard by the crisis. At least 541 people have died of overdoses in the city since 2015, a recent Light investigation found. Roughly one in eight of the city’s residents have sought treatment for an addiction since 2012.
The city expects even more payments in the years ahead from settlements with other pharmaceutical companies, including pharmacies like CVS, Walgreens, and Walmart. But city officials aren’t yet sure how large those payments will be.
Discussions on how to spend the city’s share of the money are still in early stages, said New Bedford Health Director Stephanie Sloan.
“We’re trying to get as much information as we can so that we can be strategic and use the money the best way that we can,” she said.
Sloan said the city will work with the Greater New Bedford Opioid Task Force, an organization of local government agencies and addiction treatment providers, to make those decisions. She’s also consulting with other cities and towns across the state on how they plan to use their funds. Many of those communities aren’t rushing to spend the money immediately because they want to be sure they’re spending it as effectively as possible, she said.
Some of the funding could go toward the task force’s existing programs, like post-overdose outreach and case management for low-level drug offenders. But Sloan wants the city to take stock of the resources it has and identify gaps or areas where the system isn’t working.
“We might get the best bang for our buck by enhancing programs that exist, but at the same time, doing some innovation or thinking about things outside of the box I think is really important,” she said.
One area she thinks might need more attention is what treatment providers call the “social determinants of health” — non-medical factors like poverty and homelessness. Treatment providers say it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to recover from substance use disorder without a stable living situation, and Sloan agrees that programs to help people meet their basic needs could make it easier for them to focus on recovery.
Carl Alves, CEO of the nonprofit Positive Action Against Chemical Addiction, wants to see the money put toward a community-wide dialogue to come up with the best strategies for addressing the opioid crisis.
“There is value in spending the time to really have conversations to listen to one another,” he said.
Alves noted that the settlement payments are a relatively small slice of the addiction-related funding already flowing into the city — organizations offering addiction treatment services in New Bedford receive millions of dollars each year in federal grants.
But the grants only target specific organizations and programs, which means services get “siloed” among different treatment providers, Alves said. He thinks the settlement funds could help bridge those divides and make room for innovation.
“What we don’t have funding for is this planning and strategy process,” he said. “They’ll pay for a treatment bed, they’ll pay for an outpatient counseling visit, but nobody is paying for a coordinated community-wide approach.”
That approach should include some experimentation with different programs and strategies to see what works, he said. He characterized the settlement funding as a potential source of “venture capital” for local opioid remediation.
One approach Alves wants the city to try is more data collection on overdoses and treatment. Setting up a data dashboard might help them spot trends and respond, he said.
Sloane agrees that the funds present a unique opportunity for New Bedford to step back and craft a broader strategy.
“We have great partners who work really well together,” she said. “The more seamless we can make that coordination, the better care we can provide to people.”
Sloan said she hopes to see the beginnings of a plan around the start of next year.
Email Grace Ferguson at firstname.lastname@example.org