Bipartisanship and cooperation make Virginia opioid distribution a national model

By Michelle Gowdy

In the coming weeks, Virginia and each of its cities and counties will begin to receive the first of several payments from recent legal settlements with the country’s three largest wholesale drug distributors and a major opioid manufacturer that helped fuel the devastating opioid crisis. Virginia and its numerous localities will receive a combined $530 million as part of a multi-year, $26 billion national settlement with the drug distributors AmerisourceBergen, McKesson, Cardinal Health and the opioid manufacturer Janssen Pharmaceuticals.

As executive director of the Virginia Municipal League and a former county attorney and prosecutor, I’ve had a front-row seat to the tragic impacts of opioid addiction on our communities. I am grateful that Virginia’s localities worked together to commit to spend a substantial portion of these settlement dollars on opioid abuse prevention, treatment and recovery programs.

From 2006 through 2014, distributors such as AmerisourceBergen, McKesson, and Cardinal shipped more than 2.1 billion doses of highly addictive oxycodone and hydrocodone prescription pain pills into Virginia. Many addicts later turned to heroin and the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl, which helped fuel the most recent wave of overdoses and deaths.

Between 2007 and 2021, more than 14,500 Virginians died from opioid overdoses – a number approaching the population of the city of Williamsburg and close to double the population of the town of Abingdon.

In fact, fatal drug overdoses have been the leading cause of accidental death in Virginia since 2013, and the opioid tragedy is still unspooling every day: In 2020, nearly 2,000 Virginians died from fatal opioid overdoses, and in 2021 over 10,000 overdoses were treated in Virginia hospital emergency rooms.

That’s why elected leaders and policymakers in Virginia at the state and local levels agreed to dedicate a substantial portion of the opioid settlement dollars to strengthen and support efforts to combat this devastating drug epidemic. Recently, state and local leaders across Virginia, working in close partnership with the Office of the Attorney General and outside plaintiff’s counsel, struck an agreement that allocates a substantial portion of opioid settlement dollars to local governments.

The Virginia Municipal League worked closely with our colleagues at the Virginia Association of Counties to make sure our local government members had a seat at the table. And I’m grateful to every single one of Virginia’s localities that stood shoulder-to-shoulder are allowed to participate in the settlement regardless of whether they had hired outside legal counsel to pursue litigation against the pharmaceutical industry.

Most Virginia localities bear scars from battling on the front lines of the opioid epidemic for more than 20 years. The crisis has touched virtually every program and service provided by local governments – from police, fire and emergency medical services departments to courts, jails and behavioral health services. Sadly, even local school programs and foster care services have been impacted by an influx of children from homes that have been broken or destroyed due to the tragedy of opioid addiction.

Localities agreed to a settlement allocation formula that’s based on data collected by the Virginia Department of Health, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the US Drug Enforcement Administration. The formula is based on quantifiable metrics, including each locality’s number of overdose deaths and opioid-related emergency room visits, as well as the volume of opioid prescription pain pills shipped into each jurisdiction and tracked by the DEA.

Virginia localities have committed to use settlement dollars to fund local opioid abatement initiatives. These new resources will go a long way to launch and further support effective, evidence-based prevention, treatment, and recovery programs.

Over half of the settlement funds received by the commonwealth will be administered by the new Virginia Opioid Abatement Authority, which was created with bipartisan support in the General Assembly last year. The authority’s oversight board includes state and local government representatives, officials from law enforcement and experts in behavioral health and addiction treatment. The authority will seek out and fund best practices, incentivizing cities and counties to work together to build-out regional opioid abatement programs that have real impact.

These new resources, strengthened by the remarkable bipartisan support over several years and across every level of government, will make a difference. Virginia has become a model nationally for how to build on consensus and accountability. We owe nothing less than this to the individuals, the families and the communities across Virginia that are still reeling from the devastating effects of the nation’s opioid epidemic.

Michelle Gowdy has been executive director of the Virginia Municipal League since 2016. She can be reached at [email protected]vml.org.

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