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Opioid Trust details $80M spending, police use questions abound

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(The Center Square) — Pennsylvania’s opioid trust released an update of how much money it’s spent, giving the public a rare glimpse of its internal debates over what law-enforcement-related spending is legitimate — and what’s out-of-line.

During its public meeting on Thursday, the Trust listed $78.3 million sent out in its third round of payments, with $67 million going to counties, district attorneys, and other localities and agencies. Another $11.5 million went to attorney fees for the settlements.

Public reporting for the funds, Trust Chairman Thomas VanKirk said, will only include money that’s already spent, rather than how officials plan to spend money.

Pennsylvania is set to receive more than $2 billion in money from opioid settlements, with 70% of it getting spent by counties, 15% by the General Assembly, and 15% by other municipalities and subdivisions involved in settlement litigation.

The next round of settlements – called Wave 2 – that include CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, Allergan and Teva, is in the process of getting finalized, Tyler Richie of the Pennsylvania Office of State Inspector General said. About $567 million is expected over 15 years, he said, with court approval of a consent decree to release the funds expected early-to-mid 2024.

Counties don’t always know how they’re allowed to spend the money, though. Within the opioid settlement agreement, approved uses fall under Exhibit E, allowing governments to use the money for overdose reversal drugs, medication-assisted treatment of addiction, recovery services, and prevention programs, among others.

How much can go to law enforcement, though, depends.

Steve Jasper, a board member of the trust and the community connections mental health and developmental disabilities administrator for Clearfield and Jefferson counties, raised the question of whether funds could go for a drug-sniffing dog to check visitors to the Clearfield County jail.

“We met several times on this, the technical advisory group, and we were hopelessly deadlocked on this,” VanKirk said. “We couldn’t agree as to whether it’s an appropriate use or whether it leaned to be too much pure law enforcement as opposed to really helping address opioid concerns.”

Clearfield County already spent $130,000 from opioid settlement and American Rescue Plan Act funds for a full-body scanner to cut down on visitors smuggling drugs into the prison. Now, Jasper said, officials want a drug-sniffing dog to check people who can’t go through the scanner, which would cost about $60,000.

“The Clearfield County jail wants to make sure that when folks come in for whatever reason that once they’re there and they either begin or re-engage in treatment, that you’ll have a drug-free facility,” Jasper said.

Butler County Commissioner Kevin Boozel argued the opioid funds couldn’t be used.

“We are establishing benchmarks to make sure that we are doing what these funds are meant to do — which is get people into treatment earlier than later, and not enforcement,” Boozel said.

When Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Hollidaysburg, asked if the dog could be a deterrent, Jasper argued it could be.

“‘F around and find out’ is what I would have an 80-year-old grandma knit for that dog so it is a constant deterrent to anybody who comes into the Clearfield County prison,” he said.

The trust board was cautious about endorsing any spending that’s overly focused on law enforcement.

“I do lean, and I feel very strongly, that this money should not be spent on additional police,” VanKirk said. “I also believe a drug-sniffing dog can be a deterrent.”

Board members suggested alternatives like using the money for community programs that could steer people caught with drugs into treatment, medication-assisted treatment, or creating a drug court. They also suggested using county funds for the dog and using opioid funds to replace the county funds.

“Deterrence, scare tactics, those kinds of things … don’t stop individuals, this population of folks from doing things that maybe they shouldn’t do,” Shea Madden, executive director of the West Branch Drug and Alcohol Abuse Commission, said.

The board ultimately decided a drug-sniffing dog would not comply with the spending rules.

Jail-related spending will be an open question in the months ahead for the Trust.

“Jails are a tremendous problem and trying to keep the drugs out of the jail and how to treat people in the jails and how to treat the people as they come out of the jails and go into recovery programs, I think we are going to find, are the real issues,” VanKirk said.

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