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Opioid trust approves most county projects, $41 million unspent


(The Center Square) — The public is getting a glimpse of what the Pennsylvania Opioid Trust does behind closed doors as it approved 55% of almost 400 opioid-related projects proposed by counties in its latest public meeting.

“We want to see this money used in the right way to remedy the situation we find ourselves in,” said Tom VanKirk, chair of the Pennsylvania Opioid Misuse and Addiction Abatement Trust, during Thursday’s meeting. “We want to see this money utilized as quickly as possible in the right way. It’s a terrible, terrible addiction.”

Many counties, however, have been slow to get the money out of the door that has already been allocated.

The Trust granted time extensions to spend settlement funds from two funding waves; of the $76 million sent out to counties and other government subdivisions, $11.7 million remains to be spent and another $29 million has been committed by governments, but not spent.

For the next round of spending, Trust officials split into three working groups to review 370 county projects. A slight majority of projects were approved, but many were ruled “still under consideration” due to a lack of detailed information.

VanKirk argued that the board “erred on getting additional information as opposed to just approving” projects.

Philadelphia in particular, had two projects of nine held under consideration due to a lack of information. One proposed $3.5 million for an overdose prevention and community healing fund, and the other would use $7.5 million for a Kensington resident support project. Trust officials felt it was too risky to greenlight.

“We just think that that kind of money, and with the lack of information, that we are duty-bound to dig much, much, much deeper into it,” VanKirk said. “The total of $11 million is a significant sum of money and we just have no details as to what this is going to do.”

Governments have wide flexibility on how to spend the opioid money as detailed in a document called Exhibit E, but proposed spending on projects that were too general, like athletic fields, playgrounds, or home repairs, worried officials.

Though details of county projects were not available on the Trust’s website by Thursday evening, the information shared during the meeting showed that many counties were using the funds on medication-assisted treatment in county jails, telehealth clinic services, naloxone distribution (an overdose reversal drug), school anti-drug programs, recovery housing, and community outreach.

If projects qualified under Exhibit E, though, the Trust approved the project, even for controversial ones.

Allegheny County received approval to send $325,000 to Prevention Point Pittsburgh, which would provide sterile syringes and other “safer drug use supplies” to opioid users in an effort to reduce harm.

“I’m not gonna vote no on approval, but I do want to point out that even if there are things that may be acceptable, they may not be good public policy,” Sen. Greg Rothman, R-New Bloomfield, said. “I do not want to vote to support the needle exchanges.”

Needle exchanges are complicated in Pennsylvania because Exhibit E allows them as an opioid-related use, but state law doesn’t allow them. A few local jurisdictions, however, do.

“We are not encouraging anything that would violate state law,” VanKirk said. “I don’t want anyone to think that we would have spent the money this way ourselves; the counties are the ones spending the money. We as a group may not want to spend the money that way, but if it’s allowed under Exhibit E, we’re approving it.”

Westmoreland County, for example, had a proposal to fund needle exchanges, but cannot do so according to state law. Most of the county’s projects were still under consideration by the Trust, which will meet again in June to discuss as-yet-unapproved projects.

Trust officials praised the submission of Berks County as providing detailed information about its projects. Of 29 projects from Berks, the board approved 27. Other counties, however, lagged. Forest, Indiana, Jefferson, and Lawrence Counties either had few projects or had projects deemed non-compliant for opioid funding.

Forest County had not yet requested funding and was still forming its opioid program.