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Georgia to distribute $638M settlement through grant program to combat deadly opioid epidemic

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by Jill Nolin, Georgia Recorder
April 9, 2024

The state has launched a grant program for awarding the hundreds of millions of dollars in opioid settlement funds coming to Georgia.

A total of $638 million will flow into Georgia, with three-fourths of the funds being distributed through the grant process unveiled Monday. Another 25%, or $159 million, will be shared among the city of Atlanta and the state’s largest counties.

Starting next Monday, groups can begin applying for the first round of grant funding. More information can be found on the website for the Georgia Opioid Crisis Abatement Trust. A series of workshops are being held across the state to explain the grant criteria and process, with the first one drawing a crowd Monday in downtown Atlanta.

Georgia has lagged other states in establishing the protocols to apply for the funds. DHBDD Commissioner Kevin Tanner talks to reporters Monday. Tanner is the trustee for Georgia’s opioid settlement funds.

“We have one opportunity to get this right,” said Kevin Tanner, commissioner of the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities. “So, we want to be slow and methodical to make sure 18 years from now when the last dollar is received and spent by the state of Georgia, that we have truly turned the tide on developing a continuum of care that stops the opioid epidemic.”

The funding is part of a multistate $26 billion settlement agreement with the three largest pharmaceutical distributors, McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen, and manufacturer Janssen Pharmaceuticals and its parent company Johnson & Johnson.

In Georgia, the number of opioid-related overdose deaths increased by 207% from 2010 to 2020. The federal government officially declared the opioid crisis a national public health emergency in 2017.

Since then, the illegal drug market has continued to evolve, with fentanyl now creeping into drugs like marijuana. Mixing the tranquilizer drug xylazine with fentanyl has also been labeled an emerging threat nationally.

“People who are in the manufacturing and drug business are very smart, very crafty about how they use the supply side and the demand side to market to people and change those formulas up to continue to get people addicted,” said Cassandra Price, director of DBHDD’s Office of Addictive Diseases.

Of the money coming to Georgia, $479 million will be distributed through Georgia Opioid Crisis Abatement Trust using the grant process announced Monday. Groups can either apply for a regional grant or a state level grant if they can show the proposed project has broader impact.

The potential uses for the money are varied but all related to curbing the opioid crisis. For example, the funding could go toward medication-assisted treatment distribution, prevention programs, expanding the use of opioid-reversing drugs, recovery supports or harm-reduction programs.

An inventory of existing services was created to identify where the gaps are and will influence the grant-awarding process, Tanner said.

Each application will go through a multi-layered review process that will land before what’s called the Georgia Opioid Settlement Advisory Commission. Gov. Brian Kemp appointed four members and a non-voting chairperson, Evan Meyers, who is deputy executive council for the governor’s office. Four other members are chosen by local governments.

Catoosa County Sheriff Gary Sisk was one of the governor’s picks, which Sisk says likely has something to do with how outspoken he has been about the impact of drugs on his northwest Georgia community.

Just Monday, Sisk said he heard a call go out about a likely overdose just before his radio signal cut out on his way to Atlanta. And he estimated that about two-thirds of his 248-bed jail population has some connection to drugs, likely opioids, even if indirectly.

“What’s so frustrating about this issue and this addiction is we can want all the help for these people, and we can build any buildings and build any programs. But if their heart’s not in the right spot, and their mind is not ready to get pale, then it’s not likely to do any good,” Sisk said.

“So, it is a tough situation, and we’ve got our work cut out for us,” he said. “Because we had said we want to spend this money wisely and spend it to where it is actually going to make an impact, but I don’t think there’s a single answer.”

Tanner was appointed by the governor to serve as the trustee, meaning he has the final say on which projects are funded.

The commissioner pledged to keep the distribution process transparent partly by posting key documents on the trust’s website.

“Our goal is to try to cut down on the number of open records requests, because we’re going to be so transparent. Anything you want to know will be available on the website,” the commissioner said at Monday’s workshop.

One member of the crowd Monday pressed the program’s leaders on what the vision is for the funding, arguing that an individual must first want to overcome their addiction to get better.

“Addiction is a baffling, cunning disease. We all know that,” Price said in response. “But what we also know is that people get well, people get in recovery every single day.

“But when people don’t have access to those services, then they definitely aren’t going to choose to get it, and we have stigma. So, I think us putting out this strong effort in building up access using our clinical tools to engage those individuals, make them feel welcome, reduce stigma. That’s how we do it, guys. That’s how we get people to recover,” she said.

Many of the people at Monday’s workshop were people in recovery who now work as peers in the behavioral health field. Jeff Breedlove, advocacy strategist at the Georgia Council for Recovery, was one of them.

Breedlove praised the state for including the recovery community in the process of developing the grant program before any money was spent. Each regional council set up to handle the local grants also includes a person in recovery, he said.

“By having the peer voice represented in this process, it legitimizes this process. The survivor voice is the voice that will bring reality to the discussions,” Breedlove said.

“We need all stakeholders. We need our clinicians, we need our law enforcement, we need our academics, we need our elected officials, but they need the voice of lived experience to tell them what is real and not real in the real world,” he said. 

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.

This story is republished from Georgia Recorder under a Creative Commons license. Read the original story.