By Patrick Patterson

Executive Director

December 11, 2023

More than $50 billion will pour into states and communities nationwide over 18 years as a result of settlements with companies that made, sold or distributed the opioid painkillers behind a national epidemic of fatal overdoses.

To date, Michigan stands to collect nearly $1.6 billion in settlements, according to state Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office, with half going to the state and the remainder going to municipalities that elected to participate. An estimated $24.3 million will be distributed the Tri-County region of Mid-Michigan. More settlements on the horizon are likely to raise that total.

But this is no windfall. It is hard-fought compensation for lives lost, unjust profit made and the unquantifiable impacts on families and community. It’s an important sum, albeit small if you consider the 645,000 Americans who died of opioid overdose from 1999-2021. It works out to about $77,519 per life.

The question facing local governments and the Legislature now: How do we avoid squandering the settlement dollars?

The only reasonable answer is that we honor those lost and do all we can to prevent the next death. We have an opportunity – and obligation — to invest in proven methods to do so.

Unfortunately, it will be all too easy to waste this opportunity. The $246 billion tobacco settlement of 1998 provides a painful case in point. That settlement was supposed to be directed toward anti-tobacco programs. But by some estimates, only 2.5% of the settlement funds have been spent on prevention, with the rest going to fill unrelated budget gaps.

Already we are seeing signs this lesson is being ignored with opioid funds. One county in Tennessee, for example, has set aside millions to pay down debt and for long-term capital projects. It also allocated $50,000 from its settlement fund to buy a pickup truck to carry county prisoners to collect roadside trash.

To their credit, the state attorneys general who negotiated the opioid settlements established guardrails to prevent the missteps of the tobacco settlements, stipulating that “at least 85% of the funds ... must be used for abatement of the opioid epidemic.”

Once settlement shares are allocated to municipalities, however, they get harder to track, and more tempting to be used by historically cash-strapped local governments to cover expenses that have mounted for decades following cuts to state revenue sharing.

The state of Michigan’s own spending plan for its half of the settlement correctly prioritizes treatment, prevention, recovery and harm reduction. It’s up to local governments how they spend the other half.

Local leaders can follow the state’s example by reviewing guidance from the national coalition led by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and reiterated by the Michigan Association of Counties.

The fancy word subsidiarity applies here: The best solutions are found closest to the problem. This is the wisdom supported by routing half the settlement to local governments – they know their communities better than the larger, more distant state does.

Here is what we all know: We face a big problem that demands big solutions. The epidemic of death did not go away just because a settlement was reached. In Ingham County alone, the University of Michigan has tracked 118 suspected fatal opioid overdoses as of this writing for 2023, with several weeks still left in the year.

Let’s avoid looking back at this as another opportunity squandered. Let’s invest in proven methods of recovery, save more lives, save more families.

Contact Patrick Patterson at patrickp@mmrsinc.org