Minnesota took a major step in a landmark push to combat opioid addiction Wednesday, assembling an independent panel of experts, advocates and lawmakers to allocate tens of millions of dollars in new funding to combat the crisis.
The Opioid Epidemic Response Advisory Council, formally appointed Wednesday, will meet for the first time next week. The 19 voting members will spend the coming months making long-awaited recommendations about spending money earmarked for overdose prevention, addiction recovery, law enforcement and other services related to the epidemic.
“The opioid scourge has claimed hundreds of lives, torn families apart, strained health care systems, exploded county budgets and ravaged our tribal communities,” DFL Gov. Tim Walz said in a statement. “This advisory council will help us understand the problem from a variety of perspectives and help us set priorities as we try to repair and recover from that damage.”
The council and its associated Opiate Epidemic Response Fund were established under a bipartisan agreement reached by state lawmakers earlier this year. The new law, approved with bipartisan support in the final days of the legislative session, is expected to raise $20 million a year from increased fees on drug companies and distributors.
The panel will begin its work amid high-stakes negotiations aimed at settling thousands of lawsuits filed against OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma and its ownership, the Sackler family. A tentative agreement estimated to be worth up to $12 billion was announced earlier this month.
But a number of states involved in the litigation, including Minnesota, have not signed off on the deal. Attorney General Keith Ellison said in a statement that the current agreement is “not yet good enough for the magnitude of the death and destruction Purdue and the Sacklers caused.” On Sunday, the company filed for bankruptcy, effectively pausing ongoing litigation while efforts continue to get more states to sign onto the deal.
Advocates say that uncertainty underscores the importance of the state’s approach of creating and funding a dedicated source of revenue for the crisis.
“The council can begin allocating funds without waiting for years for the litigation to pay off,” said Michael Daub, an attorney and board member at the Steve Rummler Hope Network, which backed the legislation. “That’s the beauty of the Minnesota legislation. We’ve accomplished legislatively what is stuck in the judicial system.”
Revenue from the new fees isn’t expected to begin to flow until next spring, when drug companies and distributors renew licenses they need to do business in the state.
In the meantime, the council must come up with a process and criteria for how to dole out the funds to an assortment of public and private nonprofit agencies. State Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, said the first step will be to put together a clear and fair grant process that helps the council “get established as a legitimate advisory group.”
“We’ll work on those kinds of things,” Baker said. “I think we’ll have a solid six to 12 months to get that in place.”
Jockeying for funds
With so many stakeholders at the table — and outside groups hoping to secure a piece of the funding — setting priorities could prove challenging. Jockeying for funds will likely intensify as the committee works toward a March deadline for issuing its first round of recommendations.
State Sen. Mark Koran, one of two state senators appointed to the panel, said he hopes to see an emphasis on granting requests that are “evidence-based with a historical track record [of] what’s worked and what’s not.”
“We’ve been trying to figure out, what are those things that are really working well,” the North Branch Republican said. “It’s going to be the battle between those that are able to prove the greatest results.”
The council includes members from the Legislature, the Dakota and Ojibwe tribes, public health and addiction treatment fields and law enforcement. People who are in addiction recovery and those who suffer from chronic pain are also represented. With roughly 175 applications to serve on the board, Department of Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead said the agency “placed special emphasis on including members from communities especially hard-hit by the epidemic.”
Some working on the front lines of the crisis are already voicing concerns about representation. Antony Stately is the chief executive of the Native American Community Clinic, a health care provider that serves American Indians living in the Twin Cities. Stately said he wanted to see more involvement for providers used by Indians and other historically marginalized communities living in urban areas. “For us not to have some type of voice at the table is really problematic in my opinion,” he said, noting that his clinic provides medically assisted addiction treatment in south Minneapolis.
Stately worries that groups like his with less political clout could have a harder time securing funding, especially if they’re competing with direct allocations for Indian reservations that have also been hard-hit by the crisis.