Easthampton creates fund to receive estimated $1M in opioid settlement money over next 10-15 years

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Staff Writer

Published: 06-12-2024 4:37 PM

EASTHAMPTON — The city recently took an initial step to start spending money it has and will receive as part of a nationwide set of settlements holding companies accountable for the opioid epidemic.

Councilors at a meeting last week voted to establish an opioid settlement revolving fund and to appropriate the $59,520 already received from these settlements into that fund.

The goal of this specialized fund is to make it easier for officials to spend the funds on their designated uses — opioid harm reduction and prevention — and accurately track that spending. Without the fund, this money would flow into the general fund instead.

“In my opinion, it seems like with this account we are doing our due diligence to make sure that these funds are actually going toward communities that have been impacted, or the individuals who have been impacted by this tragedy,” said City Councilor Koni Denham during the council’s June 5 meeting.

Over the next 10 to 15 years, Easthampton expects to receive roughly $1 million from a set of national lawsuits against several pharmaceutical companies responsible for the proliferation of opioids. This dollar amount may rise as the remaining settlements are finalized.

These distributors will pay up to $21 billion in settlements nationwide over 18 years, with the company Johnson & Johnson paying an additional $5 million over nine years.

Funds from these settlements started coming into Massachusetts in 2022. Hampshire County received almost $1 million from these settlements in 2023, but cities and towns have been holding off spending the money due to the strict stipulations attached to their allowed uses and required tracking.

Westhampton has also set up an account for receiving these funds, and the town’s Board of Health is in discussion with local organizations and other municipalities to determine the best uses for the funds. Similarly, Southampton established an opioid stabilization fund through a 2023 Town Meeting vote.

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Hampshire HOPE and other organizations have been conducting regional surveys to determine where the most need for these funds lies, and how to best address that need. Amherst hopes to use the results of the survey to have a strategic plan in place by the end of this month. Easthampton also hopes that the results of such surveys will provide much guidance.

The establishment of this fund marks an important step toward getting settlement dollars to those impacted by the opioid epidemic, but despite the strict regulations put forth by each settlement, concerns have been raised about assuring that the funds are used in the most positively impactful ways possible.

“The oversight of the money is very specific to the lawsuit settlement,” said Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle. “Very specifically, this is supposed to be directed by the community most affected.”

But these specifications mean that, while the spending of these funds will be reported to the attorney general annually as well as undergoing regular internal and external audits, it will not come before the City Council for approval.

City Councilor James Kwiecinski worried that this fact eliminated the “open process” that the council is tasked with providing for the public, and Councilor Thomas Peake raised concerns about the council not being able to carry out its function as a “check” on spending power with these funds. Peake noted that in some other cases, these funds were used to purchase gear and weapons for law enforcement rather than on peaceful and constructive harm reduction and prevention efforts.

Ultimately though, the majority of the council agreed that the establishment of this fund was the best way available to ensure the appropriate expenditure of settlement funds.

“We all want to ensure that what we put in place will actually fulfill its obligation,” said Councilor Brad Riley. “This is a deeply held feeling about holding people accountable for injustices that have happened against innocent people.”

The next step toward using these funds to aid those impacted in the community is the creation of an advisory committee that will guide settlement spending. This committee will be tasked with steering the overall strategy for how the funds get used, and will prioritize the voices of those who have a personal understanding of how the opioid epidemic is affecting the Easthampton community. The city is now tasked with deciding how this committee will be formed, and who will sit on it.

“I don’t know how long it will take to put this committee together, we’re looking at that as fast as we possibly can,” said LaChapelle. “Right now we want to make sure the money is in a place that the state is strongly recommending.”

Alexa Lewis can be reached at alewis@gazettenet.com or on Instagram and Twitter at @alexamlewis.