Counterfeit prescription pills containing fentanyl
(Via U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency)
Civic Life

Santa Cruz County readies to spend millions from opioid settlement funds starting next year

As Santa Cruz County awaits about $26 million in funds stemming from national lawsuits against pharmacies, drug manufacturers and distributors, residents say they want to see that money go toward treatment facilities and supporting vulnerable groups as the dollars roll in over the next decade.

Santa Cruz County residents say they want local funds from a national opioid settlement to prioritize helping to build treatment facilities and supporting marginalized groups as the county struggles to come to grips with an escalating opioids crisis.

County public health officials held a virtual town hall Wednesday evening to discuss the incoming opioid settlement funds, how they can be used, and what members of the community want to see prioritized.

Santa Cruz County is set to receive about $26 million over the next 18 years as part of a $50 billion nationwide settlement with the opioid industry.

In 2018, the county joined many other jurisdictions across the United States and filed a lawsuit against opioid distributors, manufacturers and pharmacies for their roles in the opioid crisis. Those companies reached nationwide settlements in 2021 and 2022.

Director of Substance Use Disorder Services Casey Swank said she hopes the county will be able to start spending the funds as early as the beginning of 2024.

Deputy Health Officer Dr. David Ghilarducci told the town hall that the national opioid overdose death rate has doubled since 2015, and presented data showing county opioid-related overdose death rates steadily increasing quarter-over-quarter since 2021.

“And just the data through the first half of 2023 shows we’re on track to exceed any prior numbers,” he said, adding that the number of 911 calls regarding overdoses have also sharply increased this year.

Ghilarducci said that the wider availability of the overdose reversal drug Narcan might contribute to an undercount of overdoses, as someone treated with Narcan would not report their overdose because they would likely not go to the hospital or call 911.

“Every time that we need to give Narcan is essentially a failure,” he said. “What we really need to do is address the underlying causes of people going into overdose and find a way to get them into recovery.” The idea is that the opioid settlement funds will be used aggressively to do just that.

County Deputy Health Officer Dr. David Ghilarducci shows data that indicates opioid deaths trending upward locally.
(Via County of Santa Cruz)

Swank said California has six spending priorities for the funds. The county surveyed residents, asking them to rank the six priorities in order of importance. Nearly 240 community members responded.

Using the money to match grants from other levels of government to build substance-use-disorder facilities and addressing the needs of communities of color and vulnerable populations took the top two spots. Purchasing Narcan for distribution ranked last among the six priorities.

Lookout’s ongoing coverage of the toll of fentanyl and other opioids on Santa Cruz County, including efforts to end the...

When it comes to core strategies, which are approved uses outlined by the settlements, community members heavily prioritized improving services for those in the justice system and diverting people away from the justice system in the first place.

“It was important to us that we developed a process to get community input and a wide range of partner input, so we are at the tail end of that for this cycle,” said Swank.

County residents' ranking of high-impact areas to spend the opioid settlement fund money.
(Via County of Santa Cruz)

Swank added that various regions of the county each saw things differently. South County prioritized justice-system diversion the most, whereas Santa Cruz and Felton prioritized prevention, and Mid-County stressed the importance of matching funds.

County counsel Jason Heath explained that the crux of the lawsuit was that the manufacturers and distributors in question pushed an extremely deceptive marketing campaign that encouraged opioid use.

“It became much easier to get prescription painkillers, and doctors were encouraged to prescribe them in ways they had not previously,” he said. “It’s alleged in all of our lawsuits that they did this despite knowing the greater danger of addiction and overdose.”

Heath said the lawsuit asked for two things: for the companies to stop the deceptive marketing, and for money to pour into community services for substance-use-disorder assistance and recovery.

County residents' ranking of the approve uses outlined by the settlements.
(Via County of Santa Cruz)

Swank said that as the local opioid crisis evolves, so will the plans for spending the settlement funds, which means much more community outreach will happen.

“What we decide now is not necessarily what we’re going to decide in 10 years,” Swank said. “We are going to have an ongoing engagement process, because it’s really important that we are flexible and dynamic with these funds.”

A Spanish-language version of the meeting will take place at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 6, on the fourth floor of the Watsonville Public Library. Those interested can register and/or submit questions here.

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